SHIRLEY SARGENT, 77, YOSEMITE HISTORIAN

(Obituary written by the author for the Mariposa Gazette, but published only in part by that newspaper).


Shirley Sargent, prolific writer on Yosemite history and a living Yosemite legend, died at age 77 in her home in Mariposa on December 3, 2004. One of the best-known residents of Yosemite National Park, she was also just known as “Shirley,” and letters simply addressed to “Shirley, Yosemite National Park” were delivered to her without difficulty.
Sargent was born in Pasadena, CA, July 12, 1927. She grew up a “tomboy”, as she liked to remind people, and was very physically active, climbing, jumping, running, riding until at age 13 she came down with the neuromuscular disorder dystonia, which severely crippled her. Despite her disability, she lived a remarkably active and independent life.
From early childhood she was intensely interested in reading and writing. At age 10 she announced to her parents that she intended to become a writer, “preferably the rich and famous kind.” She never became rich, but she did become famous. She ended up publishing more than 200 articles and stories in various magazines and newspapers, as well as more than 30 books. While running a preschool in Pasadena, Sargent began to publish a series of successful novels for teenagers, most of them with Yosemite settings. The best known is probably Yosemite Tomboy. When her father read the book, he told Shirley “This book reminds me of someone I know.”
She had fallen in love with Yosemite when her father, an engineer for the Bureau of Public Roads took the family for the summer to Tuolumne Meadows where he had been assigned to work. As an adolescent she knew this was the place to which she had to return to live some day, which she did in the 1960s.
She continued to write teenage novels while living in Foresta, but her interests turned increasingly to Yosemite history and she began to publish in that field. In 1964 she acquired the Flying Spur homestead which originally belonged to Theodore S. Solomons, the subject of her 1989 book Solomons of the Sierra: The Pioneer of the John Muir Trail. Just outside the Park near Foresta, Flying Spur then became the name of the publishing firm she cofounded with printer and historian Hank Johnston, Flying Spur Press. Some of her most successful books published under that imprint have been Pioneers in Petticoats, the story of women pioneers in Yosemite, Galen Clark; Yosemite Guardian, Yosemite’s Innkeepers and John Muir in Yosemite. While continuing the partnership with Johnston, Sargent established a second firm, Ponderosa Press, which issued such quality publications as her Protecting Paradise: Yosemite Rangers 1898-1960. Her interest in local history extended outward from Yosemite and included her books Mariposa Memories and Mariposa County Guidebook.
She reached people not only through her books, but through seminars and extension courses on Yosemite history, leading people to the actual sites she had written about.
While Sargent was extremely productive, hard-working, intensely focused on her work, she was no workaholic. She knew how to have a good time. She threw parties and barbecues and invited her scores of friends. She motored or pedaled around Yosemite, Foresta and Mariposa on a variety of vehicles, backpacked to the High Sierra Camps on a mule, or just lazed on a inner tube in the Merced River. In 1977 she participated in the Christmas Bracebridge Dinner at the Ahwahnee as the Squire’s Wife. She went on trips around the United States and thrilled at the natural and historical sites.
She had charisma, a commanding presence, whether she was at a small, intimate function, or at one park-wide. She always possessed a sense of purpose, of direction, and was very efficient and economical in the use of her time. Shirley was lots of fun, but she was also very ‘no-nonsense.’
Her idyllic life at Flying Spur took a tragic turn in August, 1990 when the “A” Rock Fire destroyed most of Foresta, Shirley’s home and her thirty-year accumulation of irreplaceable Yosemite documents and memorabilia. Undaunted, Shirley pulled herself together, rebuilt her home once again around Solomons’ massive stone fireplace, the only remaining structure from an earlier, devastating fire that had destroyed the homestead at Flying Spur in 1936, and which had so captured her imagination upon finding it in the early 1960s. She continued to write and publish books, but as her health deteriorated, she was forced to spend more and more time in her home in Mariposa and less time in her beloved Flying Spur.
Shirley was the recipient of awards from many organizations for her work, and an event titled “A Tribute to Excellence for Shirley Sargent” was held April 28, 2002 at the Ahwahnee. She was fond of saying that Yosemite (which she called “the world’s best place”) was “a magnet, a lodestone and a haven to me.” All those who love Yosemite and love Shirley will sorely miss her.
Shirley Sargent is survived by her nieces Kathryn Chappell, Nancy Hardwick and Susan Davies, several grandnieces and grandnephews, and a cousin, Barbara Billeter.
The family has asked that any memorial donations be made to the Dystonia Medical Research Foundation, One East Wacker Drive, Suite 2430, Chicago, Illinois 60601-1905; www.dystonia-foundation.org.