Look around. If you chose seven belongings whose stories would impart an understanding of who you are and the life you’ve lived, what would those things be?
Story Slim Smith | Photographs Luisa Porter
Josie Shumake’s latest “job” may be her toughest, she admits. After retiring from a 25-year career with the U.S. State Department in 2008, the Lowndes County native returned home, throwing herself into community service.
And serve she has, as a member of AmeriCorps-National Civilian Community Corps, Mississippi Commission for Volunteer Service, Friends of Mississippi Libraries, Mississippi Center for Nonprofits, Lowndes Community Foundation, Columbus Municipal Election Commission, Friends of the (Columbus-Lowndes Public) Library, My Book Lowndes County, The W’s Life Enrichment Program and The W’s Town and Tower community group.
But last year, a new challenge emerged when Shumake was appointed to the Columbus Municipal School District Board of Trustees. It’s a tough job, she says.
“The truth is, there are no quick fixes when it comes to our schools,” she says. “Many of the things that need to happen will take years before we see a result.”
That might be depressing to some people, but Shumake is not discouraged. If ever someone was built for the long haul, it is Shumake. She is patient and quietly persistent.
“A lot of people complain about bureaucrats,” she says. “But the bureaucrats are the people who get things done. It’s tedious, long, unglamorous work. But it’s important work, so I’m not offended by that label.
In truth, Shumake is drawn to long assignments. The test of time deepens her appreciation for the people and things that have filled her life. That quality speaks about the items she cherishes.
1. WEDDING BANDS are symbols, and for Shumake, her parents’ wedding bands, which have been in her possession since her parents passed away, are a symbol not only of their 47-year marriage, but the qualities she inherited from them. Her mother, the first “Josie Shumake,” died in 1994 at age 69. Her father, Glynn, died in 2004 at age 88.
“I think they both made me who I am,” she says. “My mother, we called her a walking encyclopedia. She loved to read, and she was the person who inspired me to work as hard as I could to learn new things. I love to read, too, and I think I got that from her.”
From her father, Shumake inherited a sense of service. “He was a B-17 Bomber pilot with the Eighth Air Force in World War II and later served as Mississippi State Representative,” she says. “When I think about my career choice, I definitely feel his influence.”
2. DONKEY is a stuffed toy, old and worn by more than 60 years of use. “I can’t remember even when I got it, or how I got it,” Shumake says. “I’ve had it forever, though. You can tell he’s old; my mother stitched him back together so many times. I have a teddy bear that I’ve had forever, too, but Donkey is special. I’m not sure why.”
About a year ago, Shumake got the notion Donkey might be lonely, so she commissioned a friend, Pauline Crouse, known for her wool creations, to make Donkey a playmate.
“Now I have two donkeys and my teddy bear and they all get along wonderfully,” Shumake says.
3. Shumake’s love of those things that have stood the test of time extend to her personal relationships, too, especially the bond she shares with her six “FOREVER FRIENDS” — Jane (Barnes) Ford, Suzy (Widegren) Robinson, Beth (Boggess) Sitters, Owen (Smith) Shuman, Beth Mitchell and Ruthe Yow.
“I’d say we have been friends forever, but really, I think we were friends even before we were born,” she says. “Our mothers were friends and we grew up together. The six of us went to the Demonstration School and the six of us were Girl Scouts together.”
Although they are all now scattered throughout the country, since 1992, the group has made it a point to get together each year for a reunion. “When we started, it was just for a weekend, but since then, we stretched it out to five days,” she says. “We know each other so well and have been a part of each other’s lives for so long. I think all of us feel that bond. It’s stronger than friendship. It’s like family.”
4. Children of her era loved comic books. Some are more edifying than others, though. Such is the case with the 1966 Classic Illustrated COMIC BOOK of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
“I’ve always loved Shakespeare,” Shumake says. “I think it started with those comic books. I wasn’t a great reader when I was young. My first-grade report card said I needed improvement in reading, but by the sixth grade, I was a voracious reader, and I especially loved Shakespeare.”
How much? Years later, when Shumake was serving at the U.S. Embassy in Lima, Peru, she learned that the Royal Shakespeare Company would be performing in New York.
“That’s all I needed to hear,” she says. “I called a friend and said, ‘We’re going to New York.” The flight from Lima to New York to see the play was well worth the effort. “It was Twelfth Night,” which is my favorite,” she says.
5. The small glass bottle contains DIRT. “It’s special dirt,” Shumake says. “When I was packing to leave home to start my career, I crawled under our house and scooped up some dirt to take with me,” she says. “Some people leave home because they want to get away. That wasn’t the case for me, though. I loved home. So I wanted to take a little piece of home with me so that I could have it with me wherever my career took me. Thomas Wolfe wrote that you can’t go home again. As far as I’m concerned he was right, because you can’t go home again if you never leave. And I never left, in a sense. Home is something I’ve always had with me. This little bit of dirt is a reminder of that.”
6. The kitchen table has a collection of media CREDENTIALS, along with four passports, tangible reminders of Shumake’s quarter-century in the U.S. State Department, where she served as public information officer and cultural officer — serving in Costa Rica, Germany, Jamaica, Columbia, Mexico, Peru and Spain. “I loved the work I did,” she says. “It was very satisfying because I was representing my country to media overseas. It was such an honor and so much fun, too.”
7. Shumake tries to be an organized person, she admits. “I put my life on paper,” she says, and the evidence are the NOTEBOOKS she keeps, all filled with detailed notes of her schedule, what she did, what she planned to do. “I really don’t know when I started, but I have one notebook from 1963, when I was 11 years old,” she says. “It’s just the way I order my life. I have to write it down, and I have to write it down on paper. Somehow, it just doesn’t work to use a computer. I’m not averse to the technology, but for me, there’s just something about putting everything down on paper. It’s how I organize my life.”