Herbert Maxwell Sheffield, my grandfather, passed away last week from complications related to COVID-19. He was the greatest man I have ever known.
Granddad was a child of the Depression. Born in Lubbock, Texas, in 1926, Herb and his four siblings were shuffled between Texas, Alabama and Oklahoma. Their parents were divorced and extremely poor, often abandoning and leaving them with other relatives.
Herb recalled childhood moments when he and his siblings would go days without food, often resorting to theft from farms and gardens just to put a little food in their bellies.
His father, Louie Sheffield, sold scrap metal and bootlegged moonshine in order to get by.
Herb remembered wading through caves in northern Alabama to check stills because Louie relied on the free labor of his children. During the spring, the stills would fill with water, forcing Herb and his brothers to float moonshine barrels out of the cave to sell.
During the summer months, Louie hired his children out to cotton farmers. They spent all day in the sweltering fields of Alabama, picking cotton from the prickly husks that left their small hands bloody and swollen. When their father showed up at the end of the day, the foreman handed over the children’s pay to him. They never saw a dime.
Herb’s mother, Jennie Lee, was incapable – and sometimes unwilling – to take care of her children. She would leave them with relatives for months at a time, fleeing in pursuit of “good times” with friends and strangers.
The Sheffield children never experienced a stable childhood, most of them dropping out of school at an early age. With no more than a seventh-grade education, Herb set out into the world to make his mark. As he did, he went with that one conviction driving him forward, “My family will never go hungry.”
Herb settled in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where he met my grandmother, Florence Carlene “Poncie” Slavens. They married in 1948. Quickly after their wedding, they started their family. They had three children: Jennifer (my mother), Carla and Max.
With childhood memories still vivid in his mind, Herb worked three jobs to support his family. He worked as a welder for Tulsa Public Schools and when he left TPS at the end of the day, Herb would move to his second job at Earl Vincent’s garage.
He worked on cars with his specialty being air conditioning systems. On the weekends, you could find him out in his own garage working on cars for extra income.
Tired and exhausted, he kept telling himself, “My family will never go hungry.”
Not only did they not go hungry, but Herb and Poncie were able to purchase a modest house in East Tulsa. Their kids grew up in a neighborhood attending local public schools.
They were not shuffled around between relatives. They were not abandoned. They were not hired out. They were not hungry. They had food. They had friends. They had support. They had stability. They had love.
As a grandfather, Herb was the very best. Between jobs, he found time to build his grandkids rubber band guns, stilts and forts. He very seldom missed a baseball game, even creating a scrapbook of my senior year. My brother, cousins and I absolutely adored him.
When my boys were born, he continued his loving and supportive ways. Although well into his 70s and 80s when great-grandchildren came along, he never missed an opportunity to spend time with them.
It was not unusual to find Grandad on the floor playing or running around the backyard with the great-grandkids long after the rest of us had run out of steam.
In all of my wonderful memories of my grandfather, one stands out. It was four years ago. Herb was traveling through Oklahoma on his way to Texas to spend time with my aunt and her family for Thanksgiving.
As he and my parents stopped in Norman, he invited us to lunch and asked to stop at a local sporting goods shop on the way home. He wanted to buy a new “red” baseball cap to replace his old one. He was a loyal Sooners fan.
With a smile on my face, I was happy to oblige.
We went to lunch near the University of Oklahoma. It was fun pointing out all the landmarks, but the highlight was showing him Heisman Row near the football stadium. Statues of Billy Sims, Steve Owens, Billy Vessels, Jason White and Sam Bradford basked in the afternoon sun, as my grandfather recalled each player with fondness.
After lunch, we pulled into the Sooner Shop where we entered into a sea of crimson and cream. Surely, we could find a new hat for him in this store. Walking over to the wall where the hats were located, I pointed out the variety to him.
Thinking he might want to depart from his traditional hat, I offered him hats with red bills and white tops, white bills and red tops, and an all-gray hat that I really liked. He was gracious and patient with me but declined each. Again, he gently emphasized, “No, it must be red.”
A bit confused with his obsession with all red, I asked him why his new hat had to be exactly like the one he was wearing.
“Mitch,” he began, “I wear a red hat every day. The reason I wear a red hat is that when I go to see your grandmother at the nursing home, she recognizes my red hat. She can be sitting staring into space, but when she catches a glimpse of my red hat bounding down the hallway, she smiles.”
My grandmother had Alzheimer’s disease. Even though her memory failed during those days, she remembered the kind man who always donned a red hat.
As I stood before the rack of hats with tears welling in my eyes listening to my grandfather, I knew “one” hat would not do. “Let’s get two, Granddad!” I offered. We walked out of the store with two new red hats, and I left understanding the greatness of my granddad a little bit more.
My family – the Randalls, the Larkins and the Sheffields – owe a debt to Herb that can never be repaid. More than any one person in our family, Herb Sheffield changed the course of our family trajectory. His simple conviction never to let his family go hungry set into motion more opportunities than any of us could have imagined.
My hope for you this holiday season is that you have a “Herb” in your life, a person willing to make sacrifices and love you to the end.
My prayer for us all is that we would be that person for someone else. In a world filled with selfish ambitions and motivations, may we learn to follow the humble and gracious path my grandfather left for us to follow.
Granddad, you will be missed but never forgotten.
CEO of Good Faith Media.