Collecting Delaware Books

Jerry A. Shields 1935-1998, A Tribute

by John P. Reid

Go to checklist of writings.

The world of Delaware books lost a scholar and a champion at the death from cancer of Dr. Jerry A. Shields on Friday, October 23, 1998. The rest of the state knew him as an environmentalist, champion of the poor, educator, and writer. We remember him for his love of local books and history.

Jerry Shields
Dr Jerry A. Shields

Jerry was born and raised in central North Carolina. He received A.B. and M.A. degrees in journalism from the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill and a Ph.D. in English from Duke University in Durham. He taught for a while at Slippery Rock College in Pennsylvania.

In 1972, he moved to Dover and taught at various times at Wesley College, Delaware State College, and Wilmington College. He turned to writing as a profession in 1978, authoring three books and many articles and pamphlets. A bibliography follows this article.

I first met Jerry in 1992 after the first issue of Collecting Delaware Books was published. He phoned me, enthusiastic about the project and offering to write an article. Over the years, we got in the habit of one-hour telephone calls and five-page typed letters discussing Delaware history or books.

That first article, "Henry Brook, Gentleman Poet," in volume 1 number 2 published April 1992 remains our best source of information about Delaware's first poet, who flourished in Lewes from about 1703 to 1736.

Jerry's next article for Collecting Delaware Books (CDB) was "What Hath 'Gath' Wrought," in vol. 2 no. 2, April 1993. After a biography of George Alfred Townsend, the article presents a detailed annotated bibliography of Gath's 31 most important works.

The aftermath of this article is a story itself and pure Jerry Shields. In the article he cited George Alfred Townsend written by Ruthanna Hindes in 1946. This small book remains a good source of information after almost 50 years and has become a valuable collectors' item. Jerry, however, did not know the author was still available and had unpublished information. Jerry and Ruthanna got together.

Ruthanna , retired Librarian of the Historical Society of Delaware and a former special projects director for Hagley Museum and Library, published her book after developing the material for her Master's thesis at Temple University. Now 81, she is known to use strong language and told me how mad she was at Jerry at first for assuming she was in her grave. But the two got to know and trust each other as fellow scholars.

She told Jerry of visiting Townsend's descendants in the 1940s in New York state and seeing two barrels of unpublished manuscripts. This material eventually was given to the Hall of Records in Annapolis, Maryland. Ruthanna said, "Well, he went over there and hit a bonanza. I mean, he nearly went out of his mind."

The result was Jerry's last book, Gath's Literary Work and Folk and Other Selected Writings of George Alfred Townsend, published in 1996 by Delaware Heritage Press and dedicated to Ruthanna Hindes.

Ruthanna said recently, "I lost one good friend when he died."

"Dr. Leon deValinger, Jr. A Glimpse and a Checklist" by Jerry was published in CDB vol. 3 no. 1 in February 1994. His love and respect for Delaware's legendary state archivist are well known. Two weeks before Jerry's death, he was still working on a catalog of deValinger's book collection.

He wrote "Forgotten Writings of Arden's Frank Stephens" for CDB vol. 5 no. 4, August 1996. His interest in Stephens' espousal of the single-tax theories of Henry George reflects Jerry's interest in politics. He took part in campaigns and demonstrations for fairer taxation. In later years, his political activism turned to environmental causes. He was chairman of both Watch Our Waterways and The Greenwatch Institute, instrumental in getting Delaware's Coastal Zone Act implemented, and testified before congressional committees over one hundred times on environmental subjects. These activities earned him the enmity of some politicians and corporate lawyers.

At various times he also served on the Delaware Low Level Radiological Policy Task Group, the Delaware Solid Waste Advisory Committee, the Delaware Nature Education Advocacy Committee, the Citizen's Coalition for Tax Reform, and the Sierra Club's National Energy Committee.

He was active in the movement to build adequate housing for the Delaware State Archives.

Dorothy W. Hudson of Lewes called upon Jerry often as an instructor in both Elderhostel and Southern Delaware Academy of Lifelong Learning programs. Some of these courses were on Delaware books and authors.

She quotes Jerry as once saying he had a "voracious curiosity about the world" and describing his work as "investigative writing."

Dorothy writes, "His correspondence [with me] through the years is truly a course in Delaware literature. It is also evidence of his wide-ranging interests, keen intellect, and value for accuracy and truth. Jerry Shields was an extraordinary man in today's world with personal and professional standards of the highest degree. His generosity of spirit and kindness touched many lives. His friendship was an honor, and he will be missed."

Roger A. Martin is a Delaware writer himself and retired Delaware State Senator. When he was Senate majority leader Jerry visited him to discuss Leon deValinger and the state archives. He remembers Jerry as a "really sincere person who was really a historian and loved the work he was doing."

Jerry worked regularly with the Delaware Heritage Commission. The commission published his Gath book, and he contributed to organizing the commission's annual Delaware Authors Day.

Commission director Dr. Deborah Haskell remembers Jerry as a "renaissance man who lived his beliefs." She knew him both for his early political activism and his more recent support of undiscovered Delaware writers and poets. Recently, he was promoting the idea of a new bibliography of Delaware authors.

He missed the 1998 Delaware Authors Day because of his final illness but called everyone involved to get reports on its success.

I remember Jerry as a man of many talents. No matter what I published in CDB, he could add some interesting bit of information and often did in the form of a letter to the editor. He and his wife were active in English country dance for many years. When I mentioned enjoying detective-fantasy novels by Manley Wade Wellman, Jerry discussed in detail the nuances of the Appalachian Mountain Scotch-Irish dialect in which they are written. He even taught bridge.

At the time of his death he was working on an article on the first history of Delaware for CDB and a new book on Patty Cannon for general publication.

He was a gentle man despite his advocacy. He spoke ardently but never stridently.

Jerry Shields final illness lasted only weeks. Throughout it he never stopped helping, caring, and doing research.

He is missed.

-- John P. Reid

The Writings of Dr. Jerry A. Shields

(Dorothy A. Hudson compiled this bibliography for Collecting Delaware Books.)




Writings in A Delaware Sampler, Wilmington 1975 Self Gallery Health Quarterly Wilmington News Journal Delaware State News and Philadelphia Inquirer.

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