Dr. Shirley J. Litwhiler

Published 2:00 pm Monday, January 15, 2024

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Dr. Shirley J. Litwhiler gave her adieu, passing away peacefully in Atlanta, Georgia on January 4, 2024 while holding hands with her son, David, and daughter, Missy. Shirley was born in 1937 in Poplarville, Mississippi to Virgil “Pinky” Davis and Hazel Massey Davis. The oldest of four children, Shirley grew up on the family farm near Lumberton, Mississippi. Her father worked for Gulf Oil on offshore rigs and oil fields in south Mississippi. Her mother raised the kids and helped run the farm. Even though she was born during the depression and her family did not have a lot of money, she had a rich childhood. Her father loved to take long family trips across the country in the station wagon seeing, in her words, “every damn cave and canyon” in the continental United States. These childhood years provided a foundation of grit and gumption and a lot of fond memories and funny stories of ill-tempered horses and sibling mischief (she said it was a true miracle she made it through childhood alive). However, it was clear from an early age that farm-life was not for Shirley and she was determined to make her future someplace far from it.

To their credit, Shirley’s parents expected their children to enrich themselves by playing musical instruments, reading and focusing on education. “It was a must to go to college in our family,” she would say. Shirley graduated from Mississippi State College for Women in 1959. She intended to be a piano major but was so nervous performing in front of a professor or an audience she would “just come apart and forget the next notes.” She changed her major to English Literature not knowing what she would become but choosing that path because “that’s what I liked to do.” She married her first husband while attending undergraduate school and welcomed her son Dean. She briefly taught high school French in Lumberton MS but realized the position wasn’t going to meet her needs. With a goal of teaching in higher education, she entered the University of Southern Mississippi where she received her MA in English Literature and began teaching at Florida Southern College. Her husband died and she was left a very young pregnant widow.  In 1965, shortly after the birth of her son David, she enrolled at Auburn University as the only female doctoral student in the English department.

In 1968 and with PhD in hand, Shirley arrived in Americus, Georgia, driving a yellow Karmann Ghia, and started her teaching position in the English Department at Georgia Southwestern College.  She was known for her sassy outfits, sparkling personality and long, thick red hair. At GSW Shirley met the love of her life, Dick Litwhiler, who was teaching in the Physical Education department. While at a faculty meeting, Dick laid eyes on her (and her red hair) and was thoroughly smitten. A year later they were married and soon welcomed their daughter Missy. Theirs was a once-in-a-lifetime bond built from friendship, shenanigans, romance, love for life and each other.  They shared many years raising children, decades of teaching students coming through GSW, annual trips to Cape San Blas with friends and lots laughter and fun.  In 1995, Shirley suffered a huge loss with the death of her husband Dick.  After a career teaching English at GSW, she retired in 1999. When asked if she missed teaching after 30 years, she said, “Not at all. You know it’s time to go when you start teaching your earlier students’ kids!” After her retirement, she started traveling the world with her close friends filling her house full of treasures from her travels.

Throughout her years in Americus, Shirley was very involved in organizations in the community. She was active in Sumter Players for over 30 years, many of those performances with her husband, Dick. Shirley was a long-time member of Calvary Episcopal Church where she and Dick sang in the choir.  She also sang with the Americus Civic Chorus. She was in the DAR and was particularly proud of the fact that her ancestor served with the Francis Marion ”Swamp Fox” raiders in South Carolina. She was an active member of the Literary Club, the Garden Club and a top prize winner in flower arrangement competitions. Anyone who visited her home marveled at her backyard tropical oasis. A true green thumb, Shirley was known to always have in her car a shovel and garden shears because “you never know” when you’ll come across a good plant.

Shirley would try her hand at anything.  She refinished and bedazzled furniture, never holding back on the tassels and gold hardware. She lovingly sewed prom dresses and barbie clothes for Missy.  She took ballet and belly dancing classes.  Shirley even summoned her courage to tackle the undergraduate degree she intended to complete at MSCW and earned a BFA in music, piano performance in her 40s. She marched for her BFA as a full-tenured English professor with the other graduating undergraduates and was darn proud of it.

A true lover of high culture, Shirley had zeal for fine food, music performances, and finer things in life.  She was an excellent cook and set the finest, most elaborate table. She had arsenals of holiday themed decorations, napkin rings, salt and pepper shakers and all manner of hosting gewgaws. She loved a good party – attending and hosting them.  Throughout her entire life, Shirley was a regular attendee of the performances of all kinds – Atlanta Opera, Atlanta Symphony, Shakespeare Theater, Broadway shows, and in retirement traveling around the world to catch shows from the finest performers in the world. She even saw the Beatles in Memphis, “So close to Paul I could touch him!” Shirley’s social calendar was always full of fun and adventure. In her own words, “Do what you like and what feels right for you. Follow your bliss.”

Shirley is survived by her children David (Bonnie) Flick and her daughter Missy (Matt) Urda, 6 grandchildren and 2 great grandchildren. She is also survived by her sister, Cathy Kruse. She is predeceased by her loving husband, Richard Litwhiler, her son, Dean Flick, granddaughter Audrey Urda, her siblings, Steven Davis and Patricia Rankin and her parents Virgil and Hazel Davis.

Should friends desire, memorial tributes may be sent to Sumter Players Community Theater, PO Box 154, Americus GA 30307 or Georgia Public Broadcasting.

Dr. Litwhiler will be interred in the Memorial Garden at Calvary Episcopal Saturday February 17 at 2pm. Please join the family for a Celebration of Shirley’s Life reception on February 17th from 3-5PM in the Parrish Hall at Calvary Episcopal Church in Americus, Georgia. You may enter through the Memorial Garden. We will raise a glass to this fine lady.