Tony Gwynn, Chick Newell and Larry Shepherd all had different backgrounds and professions, but they had more in common than you would think.
Gwynn, a Hall of Fame baseball player; Newell, a swim coach and educator; and Shepherd, a toolmaker, all died from cancer at too young an age.
But most importantly, they all had positive personalities that people remember.
Gwynn’s death Monday, at age 54 from salivary gland cancer, made me think of Newell and Shepherd, two Bartholomew County residents about whom I have written stories. He, too, was a
Hoosier — owning an offseason home in Fishers for about a decade.
Gwynn played his entire 20-year career with the San Diego Padres, a rarity these days when athletes chase huge contracts as free agents. He was one of the most accomplished hitters in the game’s history, winning eight batting titles and amassing 3,141 base hits.
However, discussions about Gwynn’s legacy weren’t solely centered around his accomplishments on the field. People talked about his endless smile, willingness to sign autographs, friendly demeanor and tremendous character. In 1999, he was presented the Roberto Clemente Award, given each year to the Major League Baseball player who “best exemplifies the game of baseball, sportsmanship, community involvement and the individual’s contribution to his team.”
Newell and Shepherd were similar types of men.
Newell learned that he had inoperable pancreatic cancer on March 27, 2013 — two days after his 55th birthday. But rather than bemoan his fate, Newell squeezed every ounce of life and enjoyment out of the time he had left.
He determined that he’d fight to the end; that was his nature. Newell was a three-time state champion in the breaststroke and helped Columbus High School claim team state titles from 1963 through 1965.
Newell coached swimmers for 30 years and helped the Columbus North boys swim team win three consecutive state titles as an assistant coach. As much as Newell was known for his swimming and coaching abilities, Newell was remembered for being a kind friend and good person.
“He was just a real sincere person. There was nothing phony about him. He was cheerful. He would really do anything for you,” East swim coach Dave Fribley told me in August 2003.
North swim coach Jim Sheridan shared similar thoughts of Newell.
“He’ll give anybody the shirt off his back. He’s got humor, he’s got talent, he’s got religion and he’s got love, all in his heart,” Sheridan said for a
June 2003 story.
What really impressed me about Newell was how determined he was to share his story and how open he was about it. He tackled the disease head-on while knowing he couldn’t defeat it. Newell continued to work, as he was able, because that’s what he enjoyed.
“I’m going to live my life as I can. I’ve always enjoyed life,” Newell said in a June 2003 story.
He died two months later on Aug. 5 — four days after the dedication of the Charles “Chick” Newell Natatorium at North High School.
Like Newell, Shepherd’s legacy lives on. He will be on the minds of some people Saturday during the second annual Hope Relay for Life Tribute Ride, for those affected by cancer. The motorcycle ride, starting at 9:30 a.m. on the Hope Town Square, has been organized by Shepherd’s stepson, Jason Gearhart.
Shepherd came to my attention in 2010 when The Republic was gathering story ideas for our breast cancer awareness section, titled “Pink Purpose.” Columbus Regional Hospital informed me that they had a man who was battling breast cancer who was willing to share his story.
Share might be an understatement. He told me that because of his strong religious faith, he believed that his battle with breast cancer had provided him the purpose of spreading awareness.
Shepherd hid nothing in telling me his story. He was open, emotional and honest because he wanted to make as many men aware of male breast cancer as possible.
“If me going through this can help somebody else, I’m glad to do it,” he told me in February 2011 for a follow-up story.
Shepherd’s honesty and courage in sharing his story paid off. Columbus resident Mark Boas read about Shepherd’s ordeal in the 2010 Pink Purpose after the paper’s pink color caught his eye. He thought twice about a lump in his sore left breast and had a mammogram performed, which helped detect cancer.
One thing Shepherd always had was hope, even when the cancer returned. His positive spirit touched family members and friends, even when they knew what was inevitable.
Shepherd died Sept. 24, 2011, at age 50. The next day family members wore “Team Larry” T-shirts on a float at Hope Heritage Days. Gearhart started the tribute motorcycle ride last year to help keep Shepherd’s memory alive.
Like Gwynn, Newell and Shepherd left this world too soon. But the way they connected with people and tried to make positive contributions speaks volumes about how they lived.
That’s worth remembering and sharing.
Kirk Johannesen is assistant managing editor of The Republic. He can be reached at 379-5639 or firstname.lastname@example.org.