Editor’s note: This is the first in a continuing series on the interesting behind-the-scenes people who add personallity and richness to our communities. If you know of someone who should be featured, email the information to email@example.com and put “Someone you should know” in the subject line.
MYRTLE BEACH Twice a month, Gus O’Shields heads from his home on 17th Avenue to Myrtle Beach City Hall, sits in the front row of the City Council workshop and listens.
The 83-year-old Shriner and Rotarian said he just likes to keep up with what’s going on in the city he’s called home for the past 23 years.
O’Shields has attended the morning workshops and afternoon meetings regularly for about 10 years, missing only one or two a year when he’s out of town on vacation or checking on his home in his native Woodruff, a small mill town in the Upstate.
“The main reason I go [to council meetings] is because they’re always interesting and I’m not too old to learn something new,” the octogenarian said.
Attending workshops and meetings gives him a better idea of how the council makes the decisions that impact him, he said.
“These decisions aren’t made just off the cuff. They’re made with in-depth knowledge and concern with the situation at hand,” he said. “It amazes me to see how they work and come together to make decisions.”
O’Shields worked with elected officials throughout the south during his career with the telephone company – then called GTE and now known as Frontier Communications.
“I have dealt with city, county and state officials my entire career. I was always interested in how they operate,” he said.
It was also his job with GTE that brought him to Myrtle Beach from Woodruff in 1967. He said his work – helping convert phones from crank-operated to direct dial – moved him to a new location about every two years, but he was able to stay in Myrtle Beach for seven years. Being in one place for so long allowed O’Shields to put down some roots.
“I was real active in the Chamber [of Commerce] … I was active in Rotary [Club] and the Shriners. I met a lot of people and made a lot of friends,” he said.
When it was time to retire in 1989, he decided Myrtle Beach was where he wanted to be.
“I reckon the main reason I [returned to Myrtle Beach] is because I lived here longer than anywhere else. This felt like home to me,” O’Shields said.
Myrtle Beach Assistant City Manager John G. Pedersen Jr. said O’Shields’ love of the city is what keeps him so active.
“I don’t think you could find a person who is more committed to helping his community,” Pedersen said.
Pedersen has worked with O’Shields on several Shriners events in the city for at least 10 years.
“Ninety percent of what Gus and I have worked on together have been Shriners events. He’s always wonderful to work with,” Pedersen said. “Gus is the definition of a southern gentleman.”
In fact, he is such a southern gentlemen that when asked his views on some of the more controversial issues the City Council has grappled with during his 10 years on the front row, he declined.
They know more than he does, he said, so he yields to their expertise on the issues.
An ambassador with the Omar Shriners, O’Shields said he was drawn to the group because of the work they do with disadvantaged children.
“It’s always been one of my favorite things – working with youth. We help so many kids through the Shriners,” he said. “And I get along real well with young people. … All old farts – excuse my language – but all old farts talk about is their aches and pains and what pills they take. I don’t want to talk about that.”
O’Shields’ sister Jackie Bailey said he’s always been a nurturing big brother and, with their 13-year age difference, practically raised her. He is the oldest of five children.
“He schooled me and paid for my piano lessons and bought me a clarinet so I could be in the band at school,” Bailey said. “He was really like a second daddy to me.”
Their father was drafted into the military when O’Shields was still in high school. He quit school and worked in the mill for a year until his father returned from war, Bailey said. Once his father was home, O’Shields returned to school and graduated, but continued working in the mill until he had the opportunity to join the phone company – first as part of the line crew and eventually as a district manager who got to travel throughout the southern states.
“When I was growing up I don’t know that we had any set goals. The mill was the only thing,” he said. “I always thought I would stay there until the opportunity [with the phone company] came up.”
O’Shields visits his family in Woodruff and checks on the home he keeps there about once a month.
“He’s always doing things for the whole family. Family comes first with him,” she said.
O’Shields never married and has no children.
“I never had time [to marry] because I never stayed in one place long enough to fall in love,” he said. What about after he retired? “I was too darned old.”
But even though he doesn’t have children, O’Shields has always worked to serve as a positive role model for young people.
Davis Cooke, 62, said he has known O’Shields since he was a teenager and has often looked to him for advice.
“When I was in high school I talked to Gus a couple times about my future … and he gave me some real fatherly advice in addition to what my father told me,” said Cooke, who is a Shriner and sergeant with the Myrtle Beach Police Department. “He’s given me advice that I still use a lot today. He told me to always take pride in what I do and be a leader. And to set my own goals and not let others set them for me.”
Cooke said O’Shields is such a fixture of the community, helping to foster a strong relationship between the city and the Shriners.
“No matter where Gus goes he knows everybody. They come to greet him. They come and hug his neck and shake his hand,” Cooke said.
O’Shields, who lives alone and still drives himself around, said at some point he expects he’ll move back to Woodruff.
“When it gets to the point that I can’t be independent, I’ll probably go back to Woodruff,” he said.
For now, he can be found every second and fourth Tuesday sitting front and center and listening to the City Council.
Contact reporter MAYA T. PRABHU at 444-1722 or follow her at Twitter.com/TSN_MPrabhu.