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Bob Kerr: Retiring, After Decades Of Service To Rhode Island's Poor

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Henry Shelton, the longtime leader of the George Wiley Center in Pawtucket, has championed the rights of Rhode Island’s poor and the working class...

Henry Shelton, the longtime leader of the George Wiley Center in Pawtucket, has championed the rights of Rhode Island’s poor and the working class residents for decades.

Shelton is retiring this week. An official party in his honor is scheduled for Friday. Rhode Island public Radio columnist Bob Kerr will emcee the event and shares his thoughts on Shelton’s career.

It’s official. Henry Shelton is retiring. I’ve been asked to emcee a retirement party in his honor. I expect I’ll be introducing a whole bunch of people who have stood with Henry in the struggle for fairness and common sense in dealing with Rhode Island’s poor. And I expect I’ll be introducing others who simply feel the need to pay tribute to one of the very best and most enduring people among us.

Henry isn’t retiring completely, of course. That’s just not in him. He has been too long at the business of speaking truth to power, of gathering supporters at the doors of utility companies and government offices and making clear the human cost of a cruel and crippling inequality.

I remember once standing with Henry at the door of what was then the Providence Gas Company. It was about rate hikes and shut-offs, as it often was. The doors were locked, as they often were. And No one appeared to answer Henry’s questions. Confronting Henry and the hard simple truth he carried with him was something many people avoided. Seeing Henry at your door could well mean you were standing on the wrong side of the great divide.

So retirement for Henry is more a matter of moving some job titles around than actually leaving the struggle. People at his George Wiley Center in Pawtucket and the Campaign To Eliminate Childhood Poverty say Henry’s wise counsel will still be a vital part of what they do.

Henry turned 86 this month. Two strokes have made it difficult for him to speak and move about. But he and his wife Carol still host staff meetings at their house to discuss how best to carry on, how best to deal with issues of poverty that sadly appear to be getting worse.

The Sheltons are all about the kind of social activism that demands presence in the streets when the country goes terribly wrong. They are of a time when pointless wars were still protested and “die-ins” were held at military recruiting offices. When grapes were boycotted, and the struggle for civil rights moved tens of thousands to march for justice.

Henry was a priest and Carol was a Sister of Mercy and a nurse when they met. Carol remembers a friend who became concerned over her increasingly passionate involvement in the movement against the Vietnam War. This friend suggested she go and meet a Father Shelton who was working with the poor in South Providence.

The priest and the nun found common ground, then more common ground. They became Mr. and Mrs. Shelton and raised a family and didn’t miss a beat.

There was a time when I walked out the front door of the Providence Journal, where I used to work and saw Henry Shelton right in front of me. He was trying to organize the carriers who delivered the paper. He had found another small pocket of economic injustice.  

One beautiful spring morning, Henry and a small band of supporters walked into the Rhode Island State House. One bounced a basketball. Another carried a boom box playing the tune “Sweet Georgia Brown”, the Harlem Globetrotter theme song. I’m not sure what the issue was that day. I just know it was Henry again bringing the message to the place where it needed to be heard.

So Henry’s retirement party at the East Providence Yacht Club will be a celebration. It will be a celebration of struggle and perseverance and the refusal to walk away from injustice. It will be a celebration of the spirit of a man who showed up at hundreds of doors to ask why things were being done the wrong way.

And if you think a yacht club seems a high faluttin’ kind of place for the occasion, you haven’t been to the East Providence Yacht Club.

Bob Kerr is a retired columnist who worked for many years at the Providence Journal. You can find more of his musings about life and Rhode Island at our website ripr.org.

Bob Kerr: Retiring, After Decades Of Service To Rhode Island's Poor
Bob Kerr: Retiring, After Decades Of Service To Rhode Island's Poor