Man of honor

Dick Shorkey '38 doesn't like to brag. When the town of Beaumont, Texas, dedicated the Richard L. Shorkey Education and Rehabilitation Center in his name last year, he downplayed it as simply "a nice honor." That's just his style. During his distinguished fifty-seven-year career as an orthopedic surgeon, he became an expert in cerebral palsy but never placed himself above his patients or his profession.

"I like people, and I especially love to take care of children," he says. "I've been awed by doctors ever since I was a little kid. I've always thought that being a doctor was the highest profession in the world. I still do. I'm still awed that I became a physician."

Shorkey had his sights set on medicine when he came to Kenyon in the midst of the Great Depression. "As to a profession," Shorkey wrote in purple ink on his Kenyon College application dated September 3, 1934, "I have decided to become a doctor, and hope that I can successfully carry through the course of study to become one."

Like many students at the time, Shorkey came to Kenyon on a scholarship. He remembers that his dad made about $150 a month, so he worked a variety of jobs as a student to make ends meet. "I shoveled sand in the College powerhouse for twenty-five cents an hour," he says. "I liked that one."

When he wasn't working and studying, Shorkey helped create the first Kenyon swim team. There was no swimming pool, much less a team to swim in it, when he arrived on campus. The first meet in Kenyon history was an intramural event held at the Mount Vernon YMCA. "Six or seven of us showed up. We had no coach, but we didn't look too bad," Shorkey says.

A swimming pool, now hidden beneath the floor of the dance studio in Shaffer Hall, was built and ready for action by the following year. Shorkey had never competed before, but he swam the breaststroke on the four-man medley relay team. The quartet didn't lose a race in three years.

The swimmers eventually found a coach and were undefeated in Shorkey's senior season, racking up wins again Illinois, Cincinnati, and Pittsburgh. Kenyon friends still call him "Flip" because of his quick turns at the end of the pool. "Yeah, we turned out to be pretty good," Shorkey allows, the closest he'll ever come to tooting his own horn.

After graduating cum laude from Kenyon, Shorkey completed medical school at Ohio State University. With World War II raging, he took his freshly minted medical degree, enlisted in the Navy, and boarded a train for San Francisco to await orders. Before he left, he married a girl he met at Ohio State named Lois with whom he would have a lifelong marriage. Their parting wasn't easy.

"Well, sure, Lois and I had a moment on the train platform," Shorkey says. "I still had no real idea where I was headed and she cried and I felt terrible."

A few weeks later, Shorkey found himself serving as a medical officer aboard an Australia-bound gasoline tanker. "We carried fuel to various airports in the Pacific," Shorkey says. "We got sent to Sydney, to New Guinea, and the Philippines. All those places were floating around the equator so it was awfully hot and sweaty on ship."

Typically enough, he downplays the dangers and fear he faced on a ship plying contested waters with a cargo of highly flammable liquid. "It wasn't so bad on the ship," he says. "I even learned to speak some Japanese from a fellow on board."

Shorkey remembers the not always successful attempts to entertain the crew in combat conditions. "There'd be air raids every night in the Philippines," he says. "During attacks our destroyers would lay down smoke screens to hide our ships. This was a big ship and they'd show movies up on deck. After the all-clear, the smoke would still be so heavy over the water you couldn't see the movie."

Through it all, Shorkey remembered Kenyon. In a note he mailed to Kenyon's alumni office in 1942, he wrote: "I am in Australia, which is quite a way from the 'Hill,' but like the majority of other Kenyon men, I often think of the first homecoming after the war is over. You can count on an early visit from me when I get home, whenever that may be."

Shirley made it home safely. He and Lois had four daughters, and the family settled in Beaumont in 1951. He became the leading expert on cerebral palsy in Texas after training with his mentor, Dr. Winthrop Phelps, an orthopedic surgeon who founded the nation's first facility devoted specifically to treatment of the disease. For almost forty years, in addition to his practice as an orthopedic surgeon, Shorkey worked with patients at Beaumont's Cerebral Palsy Foundation Hospital free of charge.

Before his retirement in 1992, Shorkey also served for seven years as the medical director at Saint Elizabeth's Hospital in Beaumont. He's characteristically low-key in describing his role, maintaining that he was only nominally in control of the institution: "When you deal with Irish sisters, you're never in charge," he says with a laugh.

-Phil Brooks

Back to Top