Part Three: Free Will and Footloose

Continued from Part 2.

The man who put the "Riley" in Richard Riley Shepard lived in Jacksonville, North Carolina, and had 18 children. Dad wrote about him in his journal. On the left is a copy of Rev. Riley Shepard's obituary from a local paper.

Rev. Riley Shepard outlived a few of his own children, including Zedoc, (my paternal grandfather) who died in 1943. My father said that his grandfather Riley walked everywhere, and someone said that Rev. Riley walked from Jacksonville, North Carolina, to Wilmington, which seems hard to believe. If you drive non-stop, this would take over an hour. I have no way to fact check this information, but Rev. Riley certainly stayed trim and lived a long life. Almost everyone on that side had some form of heart disease or diabetes, so his epic walks must have helped him live so long.

In the spring of 1987, my father sent me a journal, which he started by writing, "I begin this journal for my daughter" and he mailed it to me while I was at college. The journal was 30 pages long, explaining his childhood, his career, and the twists and turns of his life. He included 17 of his stage names and pen names, and the names of eight of his main romantic relationships.

Here's what Dad wrote on Tuesday, June 9th, 1987, looking back on his youth and how he viewed his grandfather, Rev. Riley:

  • "Sometimes I wonder whatever made me think I could write anything worth hearing and reading. I had less than a fifth-grade education. Even within those short years I "burned" school a lot (that's what they called "hookey" when I was a child). I didn't like mathematics, civics and crap like that, but enjoyed geography because it had to be read, and I really liked reading. History was fine, for that also required reading. I read everything I could get my hands on, including the Bible. Oh, there was always Bibles in our house. My mother was a Methodist and my father was a Baptist. My father's father had been a primitive Baptist preacher, one of those old-time Holy Rollers. My only clear memory of my grandfather was the way he mumbled Grace at meal-times. Maybe God heard him, but I didn't understand a damn word he said."

Having a grandfather that quoted the Bible constantly gave my father the drive to read it cover to cover at an early age, and as mentioned in part 2, memorize and recite passages to please and impress the adults.

When I was a teenager, Dad would mortify me by actually inviting the Mormon boys who came to the door inside our house, as well as the Jehovah's Witnesses, so he could go toe to toe with them while they sat, stunned, on our old, cat hair covered sofa.

Before I was born my father wrote a Bible themed album, and Dana Andrews recorded it. Dad boasted he'd put the entire Bible to music. The Album was called "And God Said" and instead of using the name Riley Shepard, Dad used the pen name Dickson Hall.

On the Methodist side of his family, no one person impacted my father's life more than his maternal grandmother, Martha Amelia Merritt Tindal. She owned grocery stores, land, and brick yards. Even The Great Depression had little impact on her family's wealth, and she had the latest record player and a radio. Methodists had a rich musical tradition, and many hymn writers came out of that faith. There wasn't an issue in Martha's house with music for entertainment. At his grandmother's, Dad could listen to the radio and play records.

In this journal entry from 1987, he writes about his musical awakening:

  • "At age nine I began to develop and interest in music. Not the religious kind, which was played by my mother on the organ and the piano, but the kind that negro musicians played on the guitar and sang on the streets. To be able to do that must be the most wonderful thing on earth, I thought, like magic. Radio was fairly new then, but we had one. We also had a phonograph. I played the records over and over and drove everybody crazy. Music and reading, that was the ticket."

The Primitive Baptists on Dad's paternal side, were somewhat like the people in the "Footloose" movie. No dancing, musical instruments, or music for entertainment. They sang a cappella at church, but not for entertainment. Zedoc considered his son's interest in performing sinful and wrong.

During my research, which began in 2005 and includes three trips to North Carolina in 2016, 2018, and 2019, I met and interviewed some Shepard cousins. Two cousins showed me around Jacksonville, and the place Rev. Riley Shepard is buried. Rev. Riley isn't buried by Clarissa, or his second wife. He's buried on the property of his beloved Primitive Baptist Church.

Below, Riley Shepard with his second wife.

The Shepard cousins drove me to a Shepard cemetery where Zedoc (my father's parents divorced when he was 17, around 1935) is buried near his mother, Clarissa. I was surprised to learn that the Shepard clan had a private cemetery, but after Rev. Riley married again, he had 7 more children, for a total of 18 kids. I guess you would need a private cemetery.

Dad discouraged me from meeting his kinfolk, saying he was a "black sheep" of his family. (I didn't listen. I've met and interviewed several, including two of his estranged brothers.) He said he considered many of the people he knew in the area as "backwards," and Dad referred to many in the South as racists and religious fanatics. At the same time, he worked to dispel nasty stereotypes regarding people with Southern accents, telling me that many ignorant people made assumptions.

Words like "hillbilly" or "redneck" or "hick" were made to belittle people with Southern accents. I noticed Dad dialed back his North Carolina accent (not quite as thick as Andy on the Andy Griffith Show) around certain people.

As for Dad's people growing up, he added, "My uncles were cruel, and one of the meanest uncles was my school teacher. He singled me out to show the other kids it didn't matter that we were related." Back when my father told me this, I wasn't sure if he meant the Tindal side or the Shepard side had the mean uncles, but I've discovered he meant Martha Tindal's sons. Methodists valued self-control, and frowned on emotional outbursts. It seems that side believed in free will and control of the body and mind. I bet Dad's personality, already a born showman, grated on their Methodist senses.

When my father died, I struggled with what to do with his ashes. On my first trip to North Carolina, I sprinkled some of his ashes on his father Zedoc's grave, and on Clarissa's. I scattered a small amount of Dad's ashes on Rev Riley Shepard's grave, who drove Dad crazy reciting the bible non-stop all those years ago, and who he got his name from. I felt unsure about doing it, but it was less than a tablespoon or so, and I didn't see the harm in it. If Dad really wanted to avoid his people, that was at least a hurricane or two ago, and he's probably escaped in a violent gust of wind and rain by now.

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