Saltwater Portrait

Shirley Schmidt's active life is slowing down

'Spitfire' leaves the big city to find peace and quiet
Shirley Schmidt has her life on display in a garage turned museum in her Long Neck home. BY RON MACARTHUR
June 18, 2012

Her nickname is Spitfire – and it fits.

Shirley Schmidt of Long Neck has fit a lot into her 60 years. She’s had a virtual cornucopia of jobs including private eye, code and fire inspector in Philadelphia and Camden, N.J., security guard to the stars, banker, bartender, pool shooter and animal rights activist.

She came close to marrying a Hawaiian prince. She has also lived out her childhood dream by meeting Philadelphia TV icon Sally Starr and formed a lifelong bond of friendship with her, but that’s getting ahead of the story.

She’s also dealt with more heartache than most. In a two-year period in the late 1990s, she lost her best friend and her sister Betty; her nephew was shot in a carjacking; two close friends died; she had emergency surgery; and she was forced to end a long-term relationship. Through it all, she has endured, keeping her sharp-edged wit fine tuned.

Shirley grew up in New Jersey and spent many summer days on the beach in Cape May, N.J. As a child, she was among the first riders July 1, 1964, on the inaugural passage of the Cape May-Lewes Ferry. Little did she know she would call the other side of the bay home nearly 50 years later. Destiny has played a significant role in her life, she says.

She comes from a close family that included her mother and father, a sister and two brothers. She laughs when she says her mother made a living playing bingo. “Yes, she was a professional bingo player who played seven days a week,” Shirley says.

Her mom was so good at bingo she could play 136 cards at one time without using chips. “We were able to furnish our home in Cape May with her winnings,” Shirley said.

A strong work ethic has been a hallmark in her family. Shirley has worked since she was 8 years old, and her first job was at a bingo parlor. Her sister ran a successful hair salon where Shirley worked as a teenager.

Over the years, she has worked in many jobs usually associated with men, especially in the 1980s and 1990s when she was a housing and fire inspector for the cities of Philadelphia and Camden. She could write a book on what she has witnessed in some of the worst crime areas in the Mid-Atlantic region. “We were even involved as undercover agents helping to make drug busts,” she said.

Shirley meets her childhood idol

Shirley’s life changed forever when she met Philadelphia TV icon Sally Starr. “She was my idol when I was growing up. I would run home from school everyday to watch her show. When we met, we hit it off immediately,” she said.

That hit TV show in the Delaware Valley area was “Popeye Theater,” which featured cartoons, The Three Stooges and Starr, who stole each show, performing without a script.

Shirley became Starr’s personal driver and bartender when she hosted parties. “She was like my adopted mom; we are very close,” she said.

Long after her TV show was canceled, Starr is remembered by those who grew up in the 1950s, '60s and '70s. Starr, who now lives in Florida, still makes appearances in the Delaware Valley and has attended benefit events and events for veterans in this area thanks to her relationship with Shirley. “People still cry when they see her; she brings back so many happy memories,” Shirley said.

Working as a security guard, Shirley was assigned to help with security for Bette Midler when she was performing at the Mann Music Center in Philadelphia.

“I’ve been fortunate to have met so many great people, and I think all of the meetings have happened for a reason,” she said.

Terrorist attack has profound effect

One of the most trying times in her life was the terrorist attack on Sept. 11, 2001. With a strong belief in the American way, she found it unbelievable that such a vicious, senseless event could occur in her country. She visited the site in New York City one week after the attack and then returned two more times over the next month. “I had to stop watching it on TV and get there,” she said. “At the time, I was proud to be an American, but I also felt a great sadness for the victims and their families.”

Shirley said she knows that some of her fire inspector instructors were at the Twin Towers that fateful day; she has her certificates with their signatures hanging in her garage-turned-museum. “I’ve never looked at the victims’ list; I don’t want to know who was on it,” she said.

She feels drawn to visit the 9-11 memorial in New York City, but hasn't made the trip yet.

Making the move to Cape Region

Forced to take early retirement when a ceiling collapsed on her during a Camden inspection in April 2000, it took three years of legal battles for her to receive disability benefits. “I wanted to work, but couldn't. I went more than three years with no pay,” she said.

Shirley moved to the Long Neck area in October 2005 where some of her friends had relocated. It has taken her a few years to decompress to a more rural lifestyle.

“It’s a different pace here, but it’s taught me patience, and that’s something I need to work on,” she said. It’s also helped her stress level decrease, which is something her doctor wants her to work on.

She also brought her collections of Coca-Cola and Schmidt Beer memorabilia, keepsakes from her life, old photographs and a special collection of Popeye dolls given to her by Sally Starr. Most are on display in her garage, which resembles a pop-culture museum.

A passion for protecting animals

Looking back on her life, Shirley is most proud of her efforts to help abused and neglected dogs and cats in the Camden area. In 1985, she became involved in rescuing dogs and cats, and five years later, she and 13 of her friends and associates opened one of the first no-kill shelters in the Mid-Atlantic region. They purchased an old SPCA building in Lindenwood, N.J., and opened the shelter on a shoestring budget. “We had 50-50s, flea markets and whatever we could do to raise money. I owed thousands in vet’s bills,” she said.

Eventually, the Animal Adoption Center purchased the entire block and is still in operation today. Shirley is still involved as vice president, but she took herself out of the day-to-day operation when she moved. “I was active for more than 20 years and I know that others are doing what I did,” she said.

The stress had begun to wear her down. “There were so many heartbreaking stories; I could tell you a million of them,” she said.

Her efforts were recognized by Hollywood star Lily Tomlin who called her and invited her and some friends as guests of honor at a Philadelphia show.

Even though she is retired and trying to slow down her pace, Shirley can't totally shut down her caring ways. She is helping a New Jersey friend sift through the maze of paperwork and records to solve a 45-year-old cold murder case involving her friend's 4-year-old brother. “He wants to get this settled to have piece of mind,” Shirley says.

It appears Shirley has already settled into a new lifestyle away from the city to a new home where she can find solace.


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