Sanibel resident, 95, shares love of shelling through volunteerism
The lure of the island paradise and intrigue with the tiny treasures dotting Sanibel’s pristine beaches convinced Gene and Evelyn Spencer that one day they would call Sanibel home.
The very first question of the interview yielded a response of robust laughter. It was a simple enough inquiry about where she and her husband lived before moving to Sanibel.
“As a Navy wife for 32 years, it might be easier to say where we didn’t live," Evelyn said. "We were in Hawaii at the beginning of World War II, then it was on to New Hampshire, California and Key West, to name a few.”
In fact her husband, Gene, was stationed in Key West twice and they stopped at Sanibel on their way to his assignment on both occasions.
When Gene retired from the Navy, they bought a small house in New Hampshire and built their first of three Sanibel homes. Eventually, the hassles of dual residency got to be too much so they sold their home in New Hampshire, and took up full-time residence on Sanibel.
During their early retirement, most of their time was spent traveling, something they both loved. By now they had been “bitten hard” by the shelling bug, so each trip involved adding to their worldwide shell collection. Evelyn lost track of how many countries she and her husband of 69 years visited, but she was quick to point out that they spent time on every continent.
Her favorite vacation spot is Australia, in part because of the diverse habitats. Not only did they collect shells while in Australia, they also did digging for opals, a pastime that became a real passion over the years.
“I love just staring at the opals and observing the varieties of color and patterns that are present,” she said. “After a while you can tell what part of the world they are from just by observing their color.”
She and Gene also spent some time in North Carolina digging for rubies.
Gene and Evelyn were in Hawaii on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Gene’s ship was deployed to the South Pacific but Evelyn was left behind to work. She described her role during the remainder of the war with both humility and pride. Evelyn had been employed by the Navy supply department.
“It was our job to keep the ships ready to go into battle,” she reported.
When asked for her best war story there was no hesitation whatsoever. “One afternoon a young man came in. He said that his ship was scheduled to depart at 4 p.m. In order to carry out their assignment, a critical part was needed but our department did not have it in stock.”
That didn’t stop Evelyn. She made call after call until she was able to find a non-Navy standard-issued part that could be substituted.
“It felt so good to know that I was able to help get that ship out of port,” said Evelyn, with a lilt in her voice.
For 15 years, Evelyn has served as a volunteer at The Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum. She has always filled the same role as a docent in the Great Hall of Shells.
“I was involved from the very beginning,” she beamed. “My next door neighbor, Charlene McMurphy donated the seed money for the Shell Museum and her husband created the wonderful state fair shell exhibit displayed on the ground floor of the Museum.”
Evelyn added, “I love seeing the reaction on the faces of people who live inland and have never been exposed to shells, as they learn there is an animal responsible or making the shell. Most of all, I like the feeling of knowing I might share something that impacts someone’s life in a meaningful way."
It was hard for Evelyn to choose just one favorite volunteer experience.
“There are so many, but I guess it would have to be developing a life-long friendship based on a conversation we had in the Great Hall of Shells. We became life-long pen pals,” Evelyn said. “There is one more story I have to share. One day while serving as a docent in The Great Hall of Shells, Eloise Bosch, the author of one of the books on display in the Museum’s international section, visited the Museum. Eloise discovered the shell that later was featured on the front of her book, ‘The Seashells Of Oman,’ and Dr. Tucker, the Museum’s first director, named the shell after Eloise. I mentioned how much I admired that shell. She gave me one as a gift and I had it made into a necklace that I treasure."
“I have the distinction of being the oldest Shell Museum volunteer and the oldest member of my church, Sanibel Community Church,” Evelyn added. “I’m 95-and-a-half. At my age,the months count, too. I still drive you know,” she mentioned with a youthful expression. “It’s been lonely this year since Gene passed away, but I try to remember my many blessings.”
She counts her son, Eugene Charles Jr., grandson, Jeffrey, and granddaughter, Elizabeth, the Museum, and Sanibel Community Church among those blessings.