Part One: Was My Father a Crook? Riley Shepard's History in North Carolina
When I was twelve, a man called our house and asked if my father was home. When I said he wasn't, the man didn't believe me.
"Sure he's not," he snarled.
"But...he's not," I said.
I could tell the man was elderly. Something in his tone scared me, his voice was shaking, he was sarcastic and mean. He said that my father had ripped him off, taken his savings, and finally, he said my father was a crook.
I pressed the phone to my ear. Was this a prank? He said the word crook over and over, and every cell in my body knew this was real. Something had happened between my father and this man.
Later, my father explained his side, and the part of my mind that knew, the part that had absorbed the sound and feeling of the man's voice, had to be walled off.
I forged ahead, trying to forget the feeling, the old man, and the horrible things he'd said. That same year, a teenage girl showed up at our house, a daughter from Dad's previous marriage, my half-sister, Leslie. Leslie travelled from Pennsylvania to California on a one-way ticket, determined to finally meet her father. She had her own stories to tell. That was 1977. When she left later that year, I wouldn't see her again until 2008.
In 1979, Riley said we had to leave. We moved abruptly to a small town in the Central Valley, one of a dozen moves in thirteen years.
Something about my father's past didn't add up. Perpetually broke, he had trouble keeping regular work, and we were often evicted. But he was kind, didn't believe in hitting children, he wasn't violent, didn't drink or take drugs. I felt loved. He did much of the cooking and caring for me, he spent quality time with me, supporting my dreams and creative activities. He wasn't strict, and he allowed me to stand up for myself. But as time went by, I began to realize his version of events conflicted with reality.
I knew my father as Riley Shepard, a songwriter, singer, and all around show business expert. As my father grew older, he gave me an auto-biography he'd been working on. He told me many of his stage and pen names, he wrote me long letters filled with love and fatherly advice, he wrote a cook book for me and my sister, Lisa, and began a candid and personal journal and the beginning of a memoir which he mailed to me in the 1980s. With the discovery of a more detailed journal he left behind, it's clear he left out many details in the pages he gave me, including the number of children he'd had.
Recently, my mother said that the old man who called that day, calling my father a crook, lived in a trailer park in Oxnard. Riley befriended him, then got him to invest in the encyclopedia of folk music--- a manuscript Dad worked on my entire childhood, but was never published in his lifetime.
I'll be going over my father's notes, unravel some family mysteries, and show my research on the twist and turns of his life, the families he had before I was born, and his career in the music business. I began digging around in 1995. I'm methodically going through a secret journal he kept, trying to fit the pieces together.
The blog for Riley is connected to my website for my studio where I work as an esthetician. "Make a separate page for your writing," someone said. I say, don't be confused. I've been an esthetician for 26 years now, and I don't want two websites. On my birth certificate, my father stated his occupation as "Cook/Performer." Most of us have more than one way to make it in this world.
I promise to fact check everything I post, and confront bullshitty stuff when I can, without being too bitchy about it, because I've believed bullshit, too. I will not exaggerate here, no need to. It's been a long process. Please see the trigger warning in the previous post.
I was first shown this photo by Corinne Ransom, a distant cousin who I never met. The portrait of Riley Shepard's grandparents, Rev Riley and Clarissa Shepard, is courtesy of Felix H. Stokes. He inherited the original from his mother, Dora Helen Edwards, and he spent hours working to removed the scratches on the original image.
My father's name on his birth certificate and in the census is Richard R. Shepard. Dad said the "R" was for Riley, he was named after his paternal grandfather, pictured above. To prevent confusion, when I write about my great-grandfather, I'll refer to him as Rev. Riley Shepard, although there's controversy about whether or not he really became a minister or not. He was a farmer in Jacksonville, North Carolina.
Richard Riley Shepard was born on October 21, 1918, one of the deadliest months in the pandemic that year, also known as "The Spanish Flu" although it didn't have much to do with Spain, except that Spain reported the number of deaths, other countries held back numbers. It was WWI, and the United States didn't want to announce the real toll, especially how many soldiers died or became ill. By the end, 50 million deaths world wide including approximately 675, 000 in the U.S. Some believe the number is much larger. Health officials knew the virus was airborne back then, and requests were made to wear masks. Depending on where you lived, masks were mandated, or sometimes merely a suggestion. In North Carolina, some thought that if potatoes were carried in pockets, the virus could be avoided. Some residents tied cucumbers around their ankles to ward off sickness, as if doing that were easier than simply wearing a mask. Maybe cucumber and potato farmers came up with those remedies.
Mask mandates were strict in some places, public gatherings were discouraged, but the rules weren't consistent in the United States. Broadway stayed open, which blows my mind.
Riley loved history, and he talked about the pandemic of 1918, but didn't go into detail. After all, he was just a baby. I don't know how the pandemic impacted my father's family back then, but they survived it. Hopefully they laughed off the advice about tying cucumbers around the ankles.
Below is a bio, written up back in the 1940s about my father's family, his early life, and career.
Next up: Part Two: The Primitive Baptists, the concept of free will, Riley's maternal, Methodist side, and more about Rev. Riley Shepard.
Special thanks to my half-siblings Richard, Leslie, and Marion for sharing stories, letters, and stuff your mothers kept in the attic, thank you Marilyn McGuire (ancestry expert genius),the Wilson Library at UNC, Kevin Coffey (writer/researcher), Erfert Fenton, The Wyatt family, Matthew Budman for finding a few of my father's rare and out of print sex books, thank you to the songwriter Larry Bastian, Allan Gurganus for telling me stories about The Fountain School in Rocky Mount, thank you Frances Jerome for finding time to "Nancy Drew" for me. Heidi Parker, Sunny Anderson, what can I say? I suck at technology and couldn't do this without you. Thomas Schworer, thank you for using your magic photography powers to fix all my old photos. Thank you Jennie Shortridge and Joe Guppy. Big thanks to the publishers Lantz Arroyo, Sarah Lopez, and Nicholas Hurd at Radix Media. We don't do this work alone, and crediting the work of others is so crucial. Lastly, thank you David Silverman for being the most amazing husband on the planet and taking this wacky journey with me, literally driving me out into the middle of nowhere so we could see landmarks with our own eyes and meet people in person.