Part Three: Riley Shepard's Early Years & His Maternal Grandmother, Martha Tindal
Continued from Part 2.
To refresh, the man who put the "Riley" in Richard Riley Shepard lived in Jacksonville, North Carolina. Rev Riley had 18 children, some of those were twins. In early census records, my father's name is listed as Richard R Shepard, and Dad told me the "R" stood for Riley, taken from his paternal grandfather. Later, he took Riley for his first name.
On the left is a copy of Rev. Riley Shepard's obituary from a local paper. He died in 1950.
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, Rev Riley, walked everywhere, and some Shepard cousin 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 the journal I mentioned, 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. But those 30 pages were just a tiny fraction of what was included in the journal I found later, after he died, in those "missing boxes" that I'll write about in another post.
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."
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. As I mentioned, she did well in life, She owned grocery stores, land, and brick yards. Even The Great Depression had little impact on her family's wealth. She had the latest record player and a radio, and my father spent much of his time over at her place, listening to music, which he loved more than anything. 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.
I met my father's older brother Floyd Shepard in New York in 1992, and that meeting made me realize there was more to my father's life than what he told me. I began looking into his past while he was still alive, asking more questions. In 2007, I found my half siblings, and I traveled to North Carolina in 2016, 2018, and 2019, I met and interviewed some Shepard cousins and registered as a researcher at The Wilson Library at UNC. On one visit to North Carolina, two cousins, one a state representative and pastor of a Baptist church (most of those Shepard relatives are now Baptists and embrace free will) showed me around Jacksonville.
Below, Rev Riley Shepard with his second wife. He had a total of 18 children. I'm related to almost everyone in Jacksonville it seems. Even the waitress at a local diner turned out to be a cousin of mine.
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. 18 kids. I guess you'd need a private cemetery.
Dad discouraged me from meeting his kinfolk, saying he was a "black sheep" of his family. 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. At least two of his uncles were bootleggers.
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.
I felt unsure about doing it, but it was less than a tablespoon of ashes, 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.
Next up: Part Four, I discover a secret journal my father kept. Where was it all these years?
Rev. Riley Shepard didn't want to be buried with the other Shepard family members, which included both of his wives. This grave is outside of Rev. Riley's beloved Primitive Baptist Church.