Gene Sherman, who lived on Vashon for all of his 99 years, died on Nov. 19, 2018, having experienced nearly a century of life and change on the island.
Friends and family describe Gene as a jack of all trades and an excellent historian, someone who was proud of his long history in this community and the fact that his great grandchildren are seventh generation islanders. Brian Brenno, the president of the Vashon-Maury Island Heritage Association, noted that Gene’s life spanned from the time that distinct “towns” dotted the island and people came and went via one ferry; on to when Vashon was primarily an agricultural, mining and fishing community, right up to the present.
“He saw the arc of history,” Brenno said.
Heritage Museum volunteer and longtime Sherman family friend Barbara Steen said Gene shared his island knowledge and memories generously, helping get the museum started with his wife Peggy, answering countless questions and sometimes entertaining museum guests.
“I called him the human encyclopedia,” Steen said. “He was a man of history.”
Eugene Clayton Sherman was born in Seattle on May 26, 1919, to Francis and Julia (Hanson) Sherman. Gene and parents lived on the property that later held the infamous Jesus Barn. In early 1936, when Gene was nearly 17, the family lost that home during The Great Depression and moved to the family’s summer house on Quartermaster Drive. That property was the family’s homestead, first acquired when Gene’s father had arrived as a 9-year old boy with his parents in 1877, lured from Minnesota by the promise of free land and in the process becoming the first permanent white settlers on the island.
Recently, over family albums showing Gene as a young boy growing up in Paradise Valley to driving a 1954 Corvette in 2001, his grandson Jim Sherman and his wife Karie shared stories about a man who began work as a teen, sweeping floors at the high school and driving a school bus while he was still a student, who went on to become a skilled machinest, able to create any part needed for any project with his own hands and tools.
After high school, Gene unloaded barges for the Standard Oil Company at what is now the Tramp Harbor Dock and helped build homes and businesses with his brother Fred. He attended the Henry Ford Trade School in Seattle, where he received his machinest training and went to work for Boeing, but never moved from Vashon along the way. During World War II, he was drafted, Jim Sherman said, but because he was employed in Boeing’s instrument shop and was serving the war effort that way, the Navy did not take him. In the 1950s, laid off from Boeing, Gene moved on to building missile nose cones for Bomarc missiles at the old high school in Burton. He finished out his colorful career as a machinest at K2 for about a decade until he retired in 1982.
His work on the island included a variety of other jobs as well, Jim said, from cutting meat at the Portage Store to building boats with the Larsen family in Cove, to running the movie projector at the Vashon Theatre, when it belonged to the Raabs. Some of the evidence of his work is still visible on the island. Gene helped build the Sportsmen’s Club with his father and and several island houses with his brother, as well as the original Dairy Queen building.
Gene’s life was not all about work, but also about family, Jim Sherman said.
Gene married “Peggy” Virginia Helen Joy in 1941, a marriage that lasted nearly 69 years. The two met in high school after Peggy moved to the island with her mother. They moved into a boarding house, which was, in fact, the former Sherman family home in Paradise Valley. Not only was it the same house, but Peggy had Gene’s old bedroom.
“My grandma always thought it was destiny,” Jim said about their life together.
They had two children, Tom and John, both of whom still live on the island. Gene and Peggy helped raise Jim, who said his grandfather shared his knowledge, skills and tools. Gene’s talents were well known, he added, and it was not unusual for the workers at Engels to send someone over to Gene for him to fabricate a part right on the spot. Gene also made small gas and steam engines, including a tiny steam engine for a necklace Peggy wore when they went to antique engine shows.
Gene and Peggy were both prolific photographers, even building a dark room in their home to develop their photos themselves.
Among Gene’s talents was collecting and restoring classic cars, his favorite, according to Karie Sherman, the rare Chrysler Airflow. Over the years, Gene had three of the cars.
Friends and family say that until nearly the very end of his life, Gene remained mentally sharp and in seemingly good health for someone who was nearly 100. He lived alone in his home on the homestead with several family members sharing bordering property. Jim and Karie, who lived next door, say they frequently helped out. But one week before Gene died, he called Jim to tell him he thought it was time for him to move to Vashon Community Care. He was not feeling quite right and did not want to be a burden, Jim said. The next days were a flurry of activity and managing the details of the move, which took place on Saturday, Nov. 17. The next morning, the care center called Jim and told him Gene was having some problems and they were calling the ambulance, which took him to the hospital. He died the next morning.
While at the hospital, Jim said the nurses commented on Gene’s age, and he told them he never drank anything but Vashon’s spring water. Living so many years in one place, Gene was often asked what kept him here, Jim said. His answer was always the same and was emblazoned on a hat he frequently wore: “Where else is there?”
Local historian Bruce Haulman called Gene’s death “a sad loss for the island” given all that he lived through, remembered and shared with others.
“Anyone working on history, Gene is the person you would check your facts with,” he said.
Indeed, already the heritage association is planning a celebration for what would have been Gene’s 100th birthday this coming spring.
Gene leaves behind several survivors, including his son Tom and wife Karla, son John and his wife Kay; five grandchildren including Jim Sherman and his wife Karie Sherman, April Sherman and husband Jon Kirk, Tami Brown, Sarah Kassik and her husband Keith Kassik and Roger Sherman and his wife Jamie Sherman, all of Vashon. He is also survived by eight great grandchildren.
A celebration of Gene Sherman’s life will be held at 2 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 15, at the Sportsmen’s Club, 19720 Singer Rd.