Our retired law partner Jay A. Brett, who spent his entire career at The Sheppard Law Firm, eulogized John Sheppard at his memorial service:
“Good morning to each one of you and Welcome! My name is Jay Brett. I was Johnny Sheppard’s law partner for 20 years until his retirement in 1992 for medical reasons — and his friend for 50 years. To all of you present today who truly loved this man as I did, I extend my heartfelt sympathy to you. Please know that I grieve with you.
I have been asked by the Sheppard family to say a few words about Johnny today. I consider this a sacred honor. Please pardon me if I should choke up just a little. It is highly likely that the vast majority of you here this morning already knew John Woolslair Sheppard, and likely most of you will know most of his major accomplishments. There are so many of them, just a few of which I will highlight a bit later.
Before going further, I wish to acknowledge and recognize the lovely and amazing Ellen Sheppard, Johnny’s loving wife and companion for 67 years. Ellen was by Johnny’s side with love and encouragement for literally ALL of the many things he accomplished in his adult lifetime, and she was there at his side when he suddenly passed away on the evening of Feb 4th. Her grace and strength, especially during the past 10 days, is at once remarkable and inspiring. Ellen knows, as all those close to Johnny knew, that he loved her with all of his heart and soul for every moment since he had the good fortune to meet her.
I have been trying to wrap my head around characterizing the man who was at once my mentor, my brother, and my best friend, who has now ascended into heaven. Johnny’s passing had me mentally handcuffed for most of the past 10 days, and it was difficult to generate much traction as to how I would address you all today. I have come to the conclusion that we are simply ALL IN THIS TOGETHER. Johnny’s passing is truly an application of the phrase “Only the good die young” , as we all know that this is a truly misinterpreted adage. When a truly good person dies, something that Johnny always referred to as “graduation”, that person is ALWAYS too young to leave us, REGARDLESS of his or her chronological age.
Such is clearly the case here — Johnny graduated way too young on the evening of Friday, February 4th at the age of 89 years, 4 months and 1 day. During his lifetime, Johnny bestowed on ALL who knew him unconditional love and affection. Every day he performed random acts of kindness to family, friends, and even casual acquaintances. But that is just the “low hanging fruit”. I can truly say that I have NEVER met another human being who lived the amazing way he did, day in — day out, 24/7. Material possessions were of little interest to him. There was no negativity. During the 20 years I worked with Johnny as his law partner, I never once heard him complain, never once saw his office door closed, never once saw him speak sharply to a staff member or client, and never once did he seem inconvenienced or interrupted when I would come bouncing into his office to ask his advice, no matter the topic or whether it was work related or personal. I never ceased to wonder that whenever he was approached by another person, regardless of the reason or who that person was, he would patiently provide them with the gift of his undivided attention — EVERY SINGLE TIME. Johnny would want to be remembered simply as someone who was kind and compassionate, and as someone who listened more than he spoke. Nothing else was required. But we all know he was SO much more than that — and that his legacy will be one of inspiration to others.
In this age of cynicism and self-aggrandizement, it is both comforting and affirming to have known a person who exemplifies honesty, humility, and pure goodness. Most of us get up in the morning with our first thought: “What do I need to do for myself today?” Johnny’s brain was just wired differently. He got up in the morning each day, and his first thought was: “What can I do for SOMEONE ELSE today?” He was either born with, or just developed as a young adult, an innate and God given capacity to read other human beings, regardless of their age. If he detected questionable intent, he would quickly and silently step away. He possessed a rare capacity to hone in on what it was that mattered to YOU – and he was able to focus on what might be actually helpful. How many people here today or watching remotely have had the experience of being the recipient of one or more of Johnny’s good deeds? Or being the beneficiary of his wise advice? Or just having whatever transpired with him simply brighten up your day — or even your life? None other than Socrates himself said: “The greatest way to live with honor in this world is to be what we pretend to be.” Johnny was clearly such a person.
We are all profoundly saddened that Johnny no longer walks among us. But as sad and helpless as his passing makes us feel, we must not let it get us down. It is something of which Johnny would not approve. If Johnny were standing before you today, he would say, as only he could:
1. Be kind and give your love and affection unconditionally.
2. Perform random acts of kindness.
3. Be forgiving.
4. Be humble.
5. And Just be a better person.
Let’s recognize and acknowledge the gift that Johnny has bestowed upon us: a LIVING BLUEPRINT of what a meaningful and fulfilling Christian life looks like — simply by doing kind and thoughtful things. Johnny rarely verbalized these attributes, he just showed us by example, after example that if we live our own lives this way, we will each become happier, healthier, and more self-actualized in what we do each and every day. His was truly a soul with a complete absence of ego. You might say he was quite literally a “force of nature” – BUT without the “force” part. But we all know that Johnny was much more than that. Kind and compassionate was just the baseline of a much deeper persona.
While most of you know many of Johnny’s lifetime accomplishments, I would like to briefly highlight just a few of them with you in case you didn’t already know.
1. It was Johnny and his good friend and fellow lawyer, Tom Smoot, Jr., who jointly conceived and organized in 1976 The Southwest Florida Community Foundation — known today as “Collaboratory”. Johnny always gave due credit to Tom for being the one to return home from a meeting in Dade County with the idea that there was a growing need to establish a Foundation here in SW Florida similar to what was already in existence on the east coast. With that idea in mind, Johnny was able to gently persuade one of his wealthier clients, Mr. Leonardo Santini of Fort Myers Beach, to donate $3 million dollars to “jumpstart” our own regional Foundation. Johnny then lobbied some of his other wealthier clients and friends, as only he could, and this produced enough in additional donations thereafter willingly made to the extent that the Foundation very quickly became a viable and powerful force for good in Southwest Florida servicing the 5-County area that it still serves today. By the way — That initial $3 million dollar donation has now, with tons of work and a bit of good fortune, been magically transformed into what is today a $182 million dollar Foundation. I believe that Tom Smoot, Jr. is here today, and I want to thank him for his brilliant idea and the role he played in putting it into action. It has literally changed the course of thousands of people’s lives here in Southwest Florida.
2. In 2011, Johnny was able to undergo and “survive”, as he described it, a rigorous procedure to establish with The Guinness Book of Records, a worldwide publication, that he had donated more whole blood pints over his lifetime between1950 and 2011 than could be documented by any other person on the face of the earth. This was largely possible because he had given each of these pints at Lee Memorial Hospital and they had kept the records to prove it. With the assistance and encouragement of his good friend, Jim Nathan, Johnny was established in Guinness, where he is still listed today, that he had donated 317 whole pints of blood up to that point. AND that number had increased to 378 pints by the time he passed away – that’s over 47 gallons of blood, folks!
3. For over 41 years, Johnny and Ellen reached out, as informal “Grief Counselors” to other families who, like Johnny and Ellen, had lost a child to suicide. Having to re-live their own grief, which began in 1980 OVER and OVER AGAIN, each and every time they performed this kindness, required an emotional strength that very few of us possess or can begin to muster. The fact that Ellen was an integral part of these sessions CANNOT and MUST NOT be ignored. Johnny was clearly not the only strong soul in his family.
4. For 3 decades, Johnny and Ellen collected and distributed literally thousands of teddy bears to the children who were hospitalized at Lee Memorial Hospital (now Golisano Children’s Hospital). Johnny and Ellen further donated sufficient funds to completely furnish and finish the interior of the 1st floor chapel at Golisano. A plaque on the Chapel’s door frame dedicates this donation.
5. Johnny authored and had published 9 separate books on myriad subjects ranging from poetry, to philosophy, to Bible scripture verse, to family life, and to local history. Each and every one of these books were written AFTER his misdiagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease in mid-1992. Somebody with a white coat “swung and missed” on that one! Johnny was thereafter awarded the title “Poet of The Year” by the Famous Poet Society in 2003.
6. In 1956, Johnny voluntarily enlisted in the US Army (Infantry Div) and served his country until 1958, first training in Fort Jackson SC, but mostly thereafter in Jacksonville. The fact that this service to his Country delayed the start of his legal career for 2 years speaks to the selfless man that he had by that time already become.
7. Professionally, Johnny (who was already established in SW Florida as one of the finest Estate Planning/Probate lawyers), took it upon himself to return to academics in 1986 to become member of the State of Florida’s first class of “Board Certified Estate Planning Attorneys”, an elite status to be sought by many other attorneys throughout the State since then.
8. Some of the other of Johnny’s accomplishments, which are too numerous to list in the time allotted here, are: Teen Challenge, Wake Up America, President of the Lee County Bar, President of the Southwest Florida Community Foundation, being named Altruist of the Year for his countless hours of pro bono legal advice, and an incalculable number of plain “good deeds”. The list just goes on and on.
To Johhny’s grandchildren who are here today (I believe 8 out of 9 – with one out of country), I would say to you: KNOW that your Grandfather was no “ordinary Joe”. He fit the definition of “great” by every marker. YOU EACH have his blood running through you. Therefore YOU are capable of doing great and wonderful things!
While it is appropriate for us to mourn Johnny’s passing, it is IMPERATIVE that we CELEBRATE Johnny and his life here on Earth. We should pause, take a deep breath, and acknowledge that we were ALL so privileged to have known a man of his character, compassion, honor, loyalty and just plain unabated decency who walked among us for nearly 90 years – A person whose actions, not just his words, have sent out a beacon showing how to live a life that actually mattered. I will greatly miss our regular Friday breakfasts, where we would regularly commence to tear the world apart and put it back to together again (ok, mostly relating to Florida Gators football). I am CERTAIN that God in Heaven has welcomed Johnny Sheppard with open arms, a warm hug, and the words: “Well done my son. Welcome Home.”
Thank you and God Bless.”
©2022 Craig R. Hersch – Sheppard Law Firm. Learn more at www.floridaestateplanning.com