I drove up to John Shaw’s house, not quite sure what to expect, and when he answered the door, he admitted he was a little nervous about inviting me into his dining room to talk about his deepest held beliefs. We’ll figure it out together, we said with a laugh.
Thanks to Shaw’s easy manner and his ability to put strangers immediately at ease, we slipped quickly and comfortably into conversation about life.
“It’s a funny thing to be 80,” he said. “You’ll see. It happens fast.”
Shaw has an American flag hanging by the front door of the Davenport home where he and his wife have lived for 50 years. There’s a sign in the yard, “Proud Union Home.” He was the first person to volunteer for my “What You Don’t Know About Us” experiment — to turn this column into a Quad-Cities listening tour, talking to people about what they believe and why they believe it.
Shaw’s political views, he told me, took shape when he was a child, listening to stories about his father. His father worked in the brickyard in Shale City, Illinois, three miles from Viola. As Shaw tells it, his father worked 12-hour days, seven days a week, only taking the first Sunday of the month off when his shift changed. He made $800 a year, Shaw said. “My father had a fifth-grade education, but he was a hard worker.”
By the time John Shaw was born in 1936 — the seventh of seven children — his father was better off. His father had a job with “a steady wage and steady hours” as a member of Local 537 (now International Union of Operating Engineers Local 150). But Shaw’s brother, Bob, kept the stories alive of how hard his dad had worked in those early years. Bob drove John to the site of the brickyard and the tiny house where they had lived, then to the tile factory in Matherville and the coal mine near Geneseo where his father had also worked. Bob’s words were a drumbeat about hard work, about what it means to be a man, and most importantly, what it means to have union representation. John’s father retired at 71 years old and lived off his huge garden and a $100-a-month pension.
Shaw grew up in Green River, Illinois, and graduated from Geneseo High School in 1954. Because he was the youngest, he watched his brothers go off to war. Not all of them returned.
John Shaw looks at this area and sees a place that his family had a hand in building, a place that he literally helped to build. His great-grandfather, Anson Calkins, founded the village of Alpha, Illinois, in Henry County. And Shaw spent his career as a union operator of heavy equipment, running cranes and backhoes.
Like many in the Quad-Cities, Shaw was out of work for a couple years in the 1980s. “To get by … I did odd jobs for $5 an hour for one woman, and she told seven other women,” he said. “That was the darkest time of my life and my marriage. I saw other people lose their jobs, their homes, their marriages. The good thing was that a lot of people started businesses of their own when the work didn’t come back.
“Then unions got stronger, got bigger. I can only remember being on strike for one day in my whole life. We had good representation.”
Shaw is and has always been a Democrat, based in large part on his belief in unions. He voted for Hillary Clinton and has voted for the Democrat in every presidential election, except for once when he voted for Republican Richard Nixon. In local and county races, he said, he doesn’t vote by party, but for the best candidate, which has included many Republicans. In 52 years of marriage, he said, his wife, Mary, has never told him whom she voted for.
Shaw is motivated by kindness to the poor and tries to be generous. Otherwise, we didn’t talk about social issues. Shaw grew up in a church-going household and is an active member of the Methodist church, but “I’ve never put religion and politics together.”
It’s an interesting time to be a Democrat, or to be political for that matter. Shaw meets a group of eight or 10 men every morning at Hy-Vee for coffee. The group is about half Democrat, half Republican. A couple of the men like to poke at him for supporting Clinton, but mostly, they tiptoe around the topic. Since Trump was elected, tempers flare quickly on both sides, and men who value each other’s friendships change the subject to sports or grandchildren or fishing when things get heated.
“Politics are so confrontational now,” Shaw said. “It’s more divided now than ever.”