12/02/1930 - 10/24/2020
Mary Emma Sheppard, born Dec. 2, 1930 in Bradenton Florida, passed gently in her sleep from this life on the 24th of October, 2020, here in her hometown. She was quite peaceful at the last, and looked like an angel, her long grey hair (it had been let grow out) floating gently across the pillow, and her face youthful and pretty. As her daughter, I was grateful to be with her. We had many memorable and meaningful exchanges over these last few weeks that I could not have predicted and for which I will be forever grateful. I have accepted good advice from our neighbor that the memories of the “sacred days” we shared be “sealed in my heart forever...precious and vivid.” My mother was a force in Manatee County, so vital and active, and it is an honor to be a member of her family. Mary was the daughter of Claflin Garst, Sr. and Ruth Lula Mosier Garst. She was born Mary Elizabeth Garst but later changed her middle name to Emma. Mary has a long and distinguished ancestry, from Welsh royalty centuries ago, to her grandfather Dr. W. Julius Garst, who developed a precursor to aspirin (a “proprietary medicine which became in great demand” according to the local paper in Roswell, New Mexico, where he died in 1926); to her own formidable father, an investor and philanthropist; and her mother, a nurse and great cook. She wisely counseled Mary as a child, “Don’t let your father teach you how to milk the cows, or he will have you out there doing it for him all the time!” Mary’s father Claflin and his twin brother Webster settled in Manatee County in 1927, their father Dr. Garst having bought for them the 500 acres around Mary’s home (built in 1913) with funds from their mother’s estate on the recommendation of Mary’s grandfather’s brother, Admiral Perry Garst, who had settled in Point Pleasant in NW Bradenton. The twin brothers used the property for a grove where they grew grapefruit, and then raised beef and dairy cattle. Mary was the oldest of three, and she and her sister Ruthie shared a bedroom. Ruthie remembers Mary as always having had a book in her hand, and thinks Mary may have been a valedictorian at Manatee County High School, graduating 1948. Mary attended college at FSU, Tallahassee, graduating in 1952 with a BS from their School of Education. Mary then moved to California where she became a schoolteacher in Salinas, and met William Luther Sheppard (b. Feb. 6, 1934) through friends at church and married him on Aug. 12, 1956. Bill was a newspaper reporter, subsequently an administrative assistant and speechwriter for Senator Dolwig, then an editor. Mary and Bill had three children, and divorced Sept. 16, 1976. Bill passed away at age 60 in Santa Rosa, California (1994). It was in Southern California that Mary joined the Sierra Club and became an avid hiker, camper, and all-around outdoorswoman (kayaking and canoeing were favorite pastimes), amateur biologist, and fervent environmentalist—activities she pursued with passion, dedication and perseverance for the rest of her life. Shortly after Mary’s mother died (Feb. 9, 1983), at her father’s request, Mary moved back to Bradenton to help care for him. She soon became very involved in local and state activities of the Sierra Club, and environmental protection policies statewide but especially in Manatee County; as well as Manatee County politics, and politics in general. Her father Claflin supported many local clubs and enterprises, and so did Mary. When Mary’s father passed away in 1995, a guest wrote, “I’ve never met a finer man.” The same may be said about Mary as a woman. Mary served as a Planning Commissioner on the Manatee County Board of Commissioners from 1987 to 2010 and, when she “retired,” she received a proclamation on December 14, 2010, a day they named “Mary Sheppard Day.” A longtime member of the Commission staff Bobbi Roy recalls how much she enjoyed Mary, had been coincidentally thinking of her right around the time she passed, wondering if she still lived in her “gorgeous house” with “the most beautiful stairwell,” where she would deliver paperwork and they would talk about gardening. Mary, an avid traveler, traveled extensively throughout the United States, from the Everglades to Canada and Alaska (twice), hiking and camping in almost all of our (and her) beloved national parks. She also traveled the world to enjoy the natural environments from about 1987 to at least 2014. Her foreign travels included France & Italy; London; Belize (at least twice); Thailand (at least twice); Nepal & Kenya; England; Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana & Kenya; Ecuador, the Galapagos Islands, the Amazon River & Peru (where Mary attempted to climb a 13,000 foot mountain, got altitude sickness and was saved by a Spanish work crew who did not speak English, but took her down the mountain on one of their donkeys); the Bahamas (with daughter Lynn in 2001); New Zealand, Auckland & Australia; Guatemala (several times); China; Scotland (twice, once with son David in 2007 to see a crumbling family castle of our ancestors); Chiapas; London, Salisbury & Oxford (with daughter Lynn in 2011, focusing on art & theatre, historic churches & famous writers); Laos, Cambodia & Vietnam; among other places. In 2001, Mary attended a workshop offered by Dr. Gabrielle Vail on the Maya codices, and subsequently joined Gaby’s monthly group formed to study Mayan hieroglyphic texts. According to Gaby, Mary was “one of the most enthusiastic members of the group and attended regularly (except when she was on one of her adventures somewhere exotic!) for the almost fifteen years that the group continued.” She and Gaby have remained close friends ever since. And in addition to traveling with Gaby and her students to the Maya area (Chiapas, Jan. 2010), she also traveled with some of Gaby’s colleagues who led tours. “Everyone just loved her!” So many have been touched by Mary’s life, and now mourn her passing. She was a leader in the Sierra Club, and took many an adventurer on hikes throughout this community. As Arlene Sweeting, a dear friend and fellow activist, remembers, “Mary set an example for all of us—to not get so wrapped up in fighting to save the environment that we forget to get out and enjoy it. She loved exploring not only the trails, beaches and rivers of Florida but special places all over the globe.” One of Arlene’s most memorable trips was one to Yosemite taken with Mary, David Riman, Mary’s fellow traveler Gerry Swormstedt, and other friends. Gerry says that Mary is the one who inspired her to camp (before that, it was hotels for her and her husband). Fellow hike leader, Cathy Page, remembers being trained by Mary at Myakka Park with a picnic lunch, and “thinks of her every day.” Mary gave Cathy at least three beauty berry bush runners from Mary’s yard that are now “heavy with purple berries.” Cheryl Spitzer became close friends with Mary after joining one of Mary’s hikes. Cheryl says, “My thoughts of being outside in nature will always include Mary.” Another Sierra Club member Bob Fellman says, “If ever there were a word to describe Mary, it is sweet and another word would be tough,” especially when it came to opposing environmental degradation. “In 2011, when I first moved to Florida, I took my first outing with Mary, a Turtle Walk on Long Boat Key. I always admired her.” During Mary’s support of the Sierra Club, she has won at least three state awards for volunteering and dedication to the environment: the “Pine Tree” award (1986); the “Administration” award (1994); and the “Florida Chapter Medal” (1999). She has also won numerous other awards and accolades from various organizations at least yearly throughout her long and fruitful life. In the mid-1990s, one of Mary’s most formidable accomplishments as Sierra Club Conservation Chair was her fight to save our community (which could have been one of the first of many in the nation) from the controversial tarlike fuel and noxious pollutant, Orimulsion. According to Arlene, Mary’s “persistence and commitment are the reason we are not burning Orimulsion at the FPL plant in Manatee County” today. Mary and Gerry (Sierra Club Chapter Chair) even went to New York to appear before the IMS, which was considering funding Orimulsion, to speak against it. According to Gerry, Mary was “the big driver” behind their fight, saying this must be done, that must be done! And then doing so. In her fight to save the native lands of Manatee County, Mary also worked with the Manatee Fish and Game Association. And she introduced many people to Duette Park. In Highland Ridge, the community that was built around her family’s former property and still-standing large breezeway styled family home (now called “Garst House”), they have a pond commemorated to her named the “Mary Garst Sheppard Pond” and, according to fond neighbor and friend Barbara Woodburn, Mary’s pond and home give the community “the unique distinction of historical, meaningful, and rich connection” to the land that was once part of the Garst estate. Barbara warmly recalls many “delightful quick wit curbside conversations with Mary,” and appreciates “the investment of her energy in the place we live! What a gift!” Another neighbor, Tammy Kovar, picked her own home because the backyard is hidden by, but abuts, the Garst House property, and like Mary, Tammy appreciates nature and native plants. Tammy even named one of her many outdoor squirrels after Mary! Mary has also inspired music. Months before she passed, Mary’s son-in-law CC Carter wrote a song for her entitled “Mary’s Old Bear Whistle,” which can be heard on YouTube, where he sings and plays guitar (coincidentally in a Sierra Club t-shirt!) on the wide front porch of the Garst House, “with wind chimes accompaniment”—a song she enjoyed only weeks before she died. Mary’s next of kin include her sister, Ruth Eleanor Yates, in North Carolina; her deceased brother, former local lawyer and judge, Claflin Garst, Jr.; and in Manatee County, her daughter, Evelyn (Lynn) R. Sheppard-Carter; her son, Gregory James; her youngest son, David Lee (now deceased); her granddaughters, Stacey (Sam) and Nicole; and her great granddaughter, Aunora Williams; as well as close Garst cousins and other relatives. She leaves behind many beloved friends (many who are still environmental activists), extended family, associates, and innumerable adventurers who joined the hikes she led. Two nights before her passing, Mary was lovingly given a lavender bath with beautiful soft music playing for her at the Tidewell Hospice in Lakewood Ranch. She fought to stay alive much longer than anyone anticipated, which continued to show her strong will to live. She passed on there at 9:30 in the morning with her daughter Lynn by her side, having spent a precious and hopeful eight days there with her. Due to the pandemic, unfortunately, the family does not have plans for a memorial at present. If you have fond memories or anything you would like to share about Mary with her family, though, it would be most appreciated. They can be reached through the address at the Garst House website (www.garsthouse.com), and any comments will be commemorated when they scatter her ashes. If you would like to honor Mary with a contribution, her favorite causes were the Sierra Club, Earthjustice, or any environmentally proactive organization that takes environmental issues to the courts. In her later years, Mary was often heard to quote the slogan of Earthjustice: “The Earth needs a good lawyer.” Mary Emma Sheppard led a long, productive and interesting life. Those who knew her well claim she was “a true American original,” so “full of life,” a “phenomenal person, an inspiration,” they wish they could live “a fraction of the life she lived.” And she was also “fun to talk with, practical and thoughtful.” She even continued to camp when she was too old to hike! “We need people like her; it is so devastating to lose them,” she was “a lifeline for our community and gave so much.” As Arlene aptly notes, “She was a force to be reckoned with!” We bid you a fond farewell, Mom! As our neighbor Barbara lovingly suggested to me, “May God heighten your sensitivity to His very real presence in shepherding your mum...our dear Mary... immersed in her mysterious sacred journey.” God bless you, Mom! You have worked hard for our community, have been exceedingly respected and well loved, and are certainly already sorely missed, and sadly irreplaceable.