For forty years, Bill Shrives was a train signal supervisor for Southern Pacific Railroad. Every day, the lives and livelihoods of thousands of people depended on his doing his job conscientiously and correctly. As with nearly everyone who plays an important part in keeping the economy humming, it is safe to say that nearly no one thought about Bill Shrives when their train sailed safely past the signals he inspected.
I met Bill Shrives when I was two, not many years before he retired from Southern Pacific, when my parents bought the house two doors down from the Shrives. We only lived in that house for two years, but in that time the Shrives became adoptive grandparents and we were added to their adoptive grandchildren. My mother’s and father’s parents were all still living at that time, but Idaho is a long way from California. The Shrives had their own children, but they were in the process of leaving home or had already left for various parts of the globe.
We didn’t spend every holiday dinner with the Shrives, but there were a lot of them, especially Thanksgivings, when no one had time for the long drive to visit distant parents or children. There may have been a few Thanksgiving dinners at the Shrives’s house, but more were at ours, and probably most were in the homes of other friends in the ward.
The Shrives had made their own way from Utah and Idaho to Southern California decades before my parents and others followed the same path, drawn by the then-blossoming defense industry. When it came to home-improvement projects, Bill had collected the tools that young fathers with new homes and new careers periodically needed, and the skills to use those tools, and the willingness to share that knowledge with the next generation. He was an experienced woodworker, and more than a few Christmas presents for my younger siblings and later for my own children came from his workshop. But what I remember most is Bill Shrive’s regular gifts of old train signaling hardware to the strange kid who liked nothing more than taking things apart. Once Bill made the mistake of passing on a working electric typewriter to me; I had it reduced to its component parts before checking to see if it worked or not. I don’t think he ever saw me put anything back together in working condition, but I got to be pretty handy with a screwdriver. Yesterday I re-soldered the capacitor in an LED flashlight, the day before that I got my computer keyboard to start typing the letter R again.
I do not know how much the adoptive relationship between the Shrives and their adopted descendants was a matter merely of shared faith. I was hardly party to most conversations, but I don’t remember much discussion of religion. What we could count on, however, was seeing the Shrives at church each week, every week. We sat on the back side row, the Shrives in the row ahead of us. They were good natured on those Sundays when I and my brothers and sisters were not models of reverence, and Bill would as often as not poke us in the ribs on the Sundays when we were. What mattered most, perhaps, was that we and they and many other families in the ward had material and emotional needs, and the Shrives were willing to help, willing to form a multi-generation community of people who could rely on each other.
A few years ago, Bill Shrives’s health declined in the wake of a number of strokes. He and his wife moved to be closer to family, and he died last month. I’m sorry for Helen that she’s separated from her husband, and for the children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren who didn’t get to spend nearly enough time with Bill Shrives. But in a world where death is too often terrible and senseless, he died in a way as least terrible and least senseless as possible, after a long and full life and as a release from failing health. A family friend from Southern California, a generation younger than Bill, delivered the eulogy, and my father dedicated the grave.
The world is not a lesser place for Billâ€™s death, because the world hardly took notice of him when he was alive. If you were to fall off the face of the earth tomorrow, there is a good chance your colleagues at work would barely notice, and a near certainty that you would be replaced and all but forgotten within days or weeks; that’s just how our economic system works. Our economy also maintains its vitality by attracting workers through higher wages to where their talents are most needed, usually in places far from their extended families. Your best chance to make a difference in a way that will be remembered after you’re gone might just be to look out for the people living just down the street. Go to the window. Take a look around. Do you see any moving trucks?