Betty Sheldon, Aberdeen, South Dakota
That's me on the left-hand side. I’m with my companion, which is kind of a loaded word. His name was Robert Ellis Mitchell. He was known in his musical career as Bobby Mitchell. He was a professional trumpeter. His parents were tiny people, but he was a big man. Besides being a trumpeter, he was a bodybuilder. Anyway, his parents called him Junior, and that was always humorous to me. Bobby was born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1935. I was 38 years old when we met in Yakima, Washington.
I moved to Yakima in the late '60s. My children were in preschool. I have two boys. Their dad and I were married at that time. We moved out there because Dakota Warecraft was recruiting machinists. I think there were 13 families from this area in South Dakota who moved out there at the same time. But the man recruiting ... of course it was all men at that time, was located here in Aberdeen.
After 11 years, my husband and I divorced. Then I had another significant relationship, shortly thereafter. My first two marriages lasted 11 years each. It’s kind of funny how that happened ... I thought, oh, my goodness, is this the best I can do, 11-year marriages? There were no children from the second marriage. I just have the two sons from the first. Then I met Bobby.
He was living in Yakima off and on when I met him. His parents were aging so he came home to take care of them. He had been traveling the world with Count Basie’s Band for about six years. Basie hired him in Disneyland though. Bobby had a very good friend, also a musician, who was with Basie's band at the time. He got a hold of Bob and he said, man, bring your ex and come out to Disneyland tonight, because so and so from the band is leaving. Anyway, he showed up at the park, and he had his trumpet with him. Count Basie had him come up and play with the band. And as of that night, he was hired.
I didn’t know Bobby when he was working the big circuits. Prior to Basie, he played with Earl 'Fatha' Hines. That was his nickname. Earl Hines, Fatha in the middle. He was a great pianist. He made all kinds of recordings. One of the highlights for Bobby was performing with Hines in Japan. They went there as a trio, piano, trumpet, and probably a drummer or a bass player. Count Basie and Earl Hines, those were the two most significant bands he played with.
How we met is a funny story. Let's see. I had a dear friend in Yakima. We liked to go out and play Bingo, especially when it was payday, when we had a little extra money, if there is any such thing. So, we went out and played some Bingo together. Then we decided to go to this Chinese restaurant that was also a bar. I wish I could remember the name of that place. It was a popular gathering place, especially for the black community. After dinner, people would have a drink, and it was payday, so the place was jammed. We met a friend of my friend’s. He was real gregarious. He said, come over here and sit with me girls. So, we sat with him, kind of in the back. Then, Bobby walked in, and everybody knew him, because he was well-known around Yakima.
Anyway, the gregarious guy sitting with us, he started beckoning him. And he had a booming voice, Bobby, Bobby, come back here. So, then, I turned around to see who he was hollering at. I never met Bobby, but I had seen him play. I’d had the better part of one gin-tonic, so I guess I was a little more loose-lipped than I might be otherwise. I started to almost sink down in my chair, and I said, oh, my God, if that man even looked at me I would be underneath the table. Anyway, eventually he worked his way back to our table. And I just gushed on him. I was such a goofy woman. I extended my hand, I just admire your music so much, dah-dah-dah. I guess he liked that kind of gushing.
He sat down, and it was like nobody else was there. We just engaged, and that was the beginning. And we were together for eleven-years. But we never married. We talked about it, but never too seriously. We couldn't see any reason to. Anyway, I was still married at the time, but, we were in the process of getting a divorce. Eventually Bob's parents needed more help than what he could provide, and he couldn’t find people that seemed to do a good job. So, I moved in with them, and took care of, particularly his mother. His father died not too long after that. But his mother was an invalid and needed a lot of care and time.
I didn't know her when she was well. I wish I had. She had a very difficult life. They were not that far removed from slavery when they lived in Alabama. From Alabama, they first moved to Chicago. Many blacks from the South migrated up there for jobs and hopefully better treatment. His father's brother and uncle were living in Chicago, so, they moved into the same apartment building. Not long after that, Bobby's father moved West to work in the shipyards. It was during the Second World war. A year or two later his father had his family come out West on a train.
For a short time, they lived in the Portland, Oregon area. They heard from their preacher that Yakima, Washington was the land of milk and honey. He wanted them to relocate there, because he was starting up a new church. So, they ended up in Yakima. His father became a preacher. It was the Church of God in Christ. Bobby was, seven, eight, nine, maybe somewhere in there.
In 1994 we moved to South Dakota. Bobby’s mother had died in 1987 or 1989. I wanted to be closer to my parents, who couldn’t travel any more. It wasn't an easy move for Bobby. We bought a house in the little town of Hosmer, South Dakota, because we could buy one for cash. We sold his family home in Yakima, which was quite an ordeal. I took a job in the nursing-home. In Yakima, I had been working in dietetics. I worked in the WIC program. Women, Infants and Children's nutrition program. The experience I gained there meant I was qualified for the nursing-home job. I worked in there for 10 or 11 years, and towards the end of that time, Bob died.
I left Hosmer within a year of his death. I didn't want to stay there long enough to be a resident in the nursing-home. Bob was in the ICU for two months before he died. He was sick all through his body. I couldn't even list all the things that were wrong. He was 68 when he died. He was already sick when we moved to South Dakota. It started before his parents died, but especially accelerated after that. It was like we went from having two old sick people in the house, to him becoming sick.
It was difficult for Bobby to live in South Dakota. Mostly because of his own perceptions. Although there definitely-was an element of fear that was justified. We moved to a community of approximately 500 people. Their heritage was almost exclusively German from Russian. Many had literally never left Hosmer. He was the only black person in the community. Some people openly welcomed him. He very much appreciated that. Although I'm not sure he trusted it, because he did not trust very easily. He was reclusive, for one thing. He didn't mix very much, by choice.
I don't believe he experienced any outward hostility. However, there was reason to feel uncomfortable in a close-knit town like that, where everybody has lived forever. It was hard for them to even accept me into the position that I took over at the nursing-home, just because I was different, and I wasn't from around there. It took almost the whole 10 years I worked there. Finally, after maybe seven or eight, I realized, they really-liked me. They accepted me, and they didn't want me to leave. They appreciated what I had brought to the community.
Bobby never had the unconditional love that every child needs. I think it comes down to that. He spent his life trying to get that from his mother. And, it just never happened. By the time she was just about dead, she told him he was a pretty good son. And for me, silly me, I thought I could be what he needed. That was impossible. But I learned a lot from him. It was not all a giving situation. I learned about Jazz for one thing.
When we first started seeing each other, he'd come to my home and he'd bring Oscar Peterson and Frank Sinatra albums. If you put one of those on now, I’d be able to stop myself from crying, but I would still remember what song comes next. We would listen to the same songs over and over. He worked with both Sinatra and Peterson. He told me about them. He was a great storyteller. He was a good imitator too. He could talk like those guys. There was a lot of fun involved, and it was very romantic. What's not to love about Frank Sinatra's singing?
Sinatra would appear with him in places like Vegas, with the Basie band, and Ella Fitzgerald, and-also, Sarah Vaughn, who he admired very much. Her voice is unsurpassed, as far as he was concerned. He was absolutely floored by Ella Fitzgerald. When she'd walk out on stage ... one of the guys, maybe it was Sonny Cohn, maybe it was somebody else, kind of warned him, man, when Ella comes out, don't pay too much attention to what your eyes are seeing, because when she starts to sing, you're gonna forget about all of that.
I intended to write when I retired. I tried often, and I wrote little things here and there, which are scattered all over. But then I got to a point where I realized, I don't really-like to go backwards. If I start now, and start pulling up all what I lived through, I'll be missing out on what's happening now. So, I guess I made that decision, and I don't regret it. Maybe some-day I'll start writing. I'm getting my strength back, and I'm starting to think again. There are times when I might feel like doing something creative, other than painting or playing music, or visiting my friends. I might do a piece of writing. There are a lot of stories to be told.