Peggy Shays is currently a writer, though she has worn many hats in her long life. During our interview, she shared stories about and lessons learned from her family, acting experiences, business, parenting, writing, and more. She also shared ways God has touched and blessed her life. She says, “I know I've been put here for a purpose, part of which may be to see that others have a reason to do their best, regardless of the circumstances.
You’ve had several careers in your long life.
Yes -- professional actress from age 10-20; mother; PR agent for a ladies club after my youngest started school; Clerk for our church (having had no previous business training); teacher, manager, then owner of a business school; and finally writer. I've been writing all my life but never thought of myself as a writer. It's a wonderful, freeing feeling -- doing something you enjoy doing!
How did you get into acting?
Acting was a Godsend for me. My parents separated when I was probably about nine. It was a devastating experience for all of us as ours had been a most loving, happy family -- until an unexpected visitor to our home “stole” my father’s heart (and then married another). My father remained a part of our lives, though he was not living with us. And even though it seemed to everyone (except my mother) that the separation hadn't made a bit of difference in my life, it had. I had been an extremely outgoing child, but I became very timid and unsure of myself -- except when on the stage. I couldn't imagine ever NOT acting, nor could I imagine anyone not wanting to act -- until I fell in love, got married when I was 21, and then raised a family.
Ann Harding, one of the well-known actresses at that time, saw me at Hedgerow and recommended that I come out to Detroit to act in one of the plays in that stock company, as they were having trouble finding a child actor "who was natural." When Mother and I got there, I learned I was to have the part of a boy. I was just 12. I got a boy's haircut and then refused to wear my dresses again ’till my hair grew out. So, it caused a bit of embarrassment on the train coming home when I went in the ladies' room. The following summer I played "Alice" in "Alice in Wonderland". After that, I played the part every year during the Christmas holidays from ages 13 through 19. When I left Hedgerow, the play was taken out of the repertoire. I was the only one who ever played "Alice," and that was the only play where one actor played the same part.
What can you tell us about Hedgerow Theatre?
Hedgerow Theatre is the oldest, still running repertory theatre in the country, situated in Rose Valley, PA, about 15 miles from Philadelphia, 3 miles from Swarthmore College (www.hedgerowtheatre.org). It was founded by Jasper Deeter, who was considered to be the greatest director in the country in the 1920s and early ’30s. Deeter had been with the Provincetown Players in Greenwich Village, NYC, but when the group voted to "go commercial" and no longer continue as a repertory theatre, Deeter left with two others in search of a small theatre in an atmosphere conducive to the theatre. When he saw the Guild Hall in Rose Valley, he knew he had found the perfect building and setting. And, upon learning that my father, L. Stauffer Oliver, owned the building, he came up the hill to talk to my mother, Margaret Scott Oliver. He couldn't have found a more sympathetic or enthusiastic person to talk to than my mother, who had written, directed, and acted in many little one-act plays that were all the rage in the early 1900s. With my mother’s staunch support, as well as my father’s financial support, Deeter renamed the hall to Hedgerow Theatre and persevered even through the difficult years. Neophytes, as well as well-known actors, such as Eva LeGalliene, would act at Hedgerow without pay just for the privilege of working under the direction of Jasper Deeter.
What did you learn from working with such a legend as Jasper Deeter?
The most important thing I learned from Jasper Deeter, which he instilled in every actor, was that you must "be" the person. You could have all the acting technique in the world, and the audience might think they were watching a "great" performance, but that's all it would be. He said you could fake any emotion -- love, joy, hate, fear, etc. -- but you couldn't fake "honesty." If you weren't truly "being" the person you were portraying, you would be depriving the audience of the very reason they went to the theatre -- to become completely involved in the life of another for the space of a few hours. And the magic would be lost.
How did you come to recognize God in your life?
Even though we didn't attend church, my Mother's language was peppered with quotes from Shakespeare and the Bible, as her father had been a Shakespearean actor in his youth and would read from the Bible or from Shakespeare every night. So, often when I read a Bible passage, I'm reminded of Mother, and think to myself, "That's where I’ve heard this before." But my parents, like many of the other parents in Rose Valley, thought church attendance was a "social ritual," not a thing of the heart. So, we didn't attend church. However, many of them felt we children should have some religious training, so they hired a Miss Norton to come to our house every Saturday morning for an hour. There were about 10 of us in attendance. The thing I remember most, and truly loved, was saying the Lord's Prayer with our eyes closed. Of course, this is a very difficult thing for a child to do without peeking to see if the others also have their eyes closed. Up to that time, I had prided myself on being a "spitfire." What power I felt when I had a tantrum and would lie on the floor and kick my legs so fast and spin around in circles and no one could grab me! Mother must have told Miss Norton that I had quite a temper, because Miss Norton would tell us that Jesus didn't lose his temper. Pretty soon, losing my temper no longer had any appeal for me. Mother said that if I would get mad, I’d leave the room, mumbling something and then come back all sweetness and light, and say, "Mother, what was I mad about?" What I would mumble through clenched teeth was, "Jesus wouldn't do it. Jesus wouldn't do it." And truly I would have forgotten! I'm grateful to say that was the end of a temper.
The early religious training I had received from Miss Norton stayed with me for years, although I went through a period of not knowing what I believed when my Mother died when I was not quite 18. But it came back again when my husband and I were trying to find a religion and church for our children to attend. We thought it would mean more to them if we also attended church. So, my husband, Bud, being a most thorough individual, spent a year searching for the truth and finally was led to a religion that was right for us. I have to admit that I planted the seed to look into what I had been taught by Miss Norton.
Is there anything from the Bible or anything you learned from your own experience that helped you raise your children?
Of course! “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it” (Prov. 22:6) was always very helpful to Bud and me. Raising children is not a question of forcing one's will on someone else. Also, from my experiences, I've learned that as much as we love our children and want to save them from sorrow and protect them, we cannot, and should not, deprive them of their own experiences or try to keep them from the lessons they must learn in order to become better, stronger individuals.
What evidence of God have you seen in your life?
When I think about my life, I'm overwhelmed. Rather than dwell on the difficulties I may have had, I’m continually aware of the many blessings I have received and how I have been protected all my life. I've also been very aware lately that what might have seemed to be a problem, a defeat, a failure, or a poor choice at the time has really worked out for the best. I'm thoroughly convinced that God is truly in control of our lives and has a plan for all of us. We just have to listen and trust, and then we are guided correctly. God never makes a mistake. And when we sometimes make mistakes, He's right there to put us back on track again and to show us the blessing. One example is when I had my screen test when I was about 19 or 20. I should have applied my own make-up because the make-up artist made me look like a beautiful china doll with absolutely no expression at all. I should have chosen the scenes I would do. But if I had, I'm sure I would have been offered a contract and would have had to accept it, as this was still during the Depression. I would have been eaten alive in Hollywood! I never would have married my husband and raised 4 wonderful sons, who have given me 4 wonderful daughters (as there are no in-laws in our family) and 9 grandchildren (which now means 17, as 8 of them are married), and as of this coming August, 14 great-grandchildren. Just think what I would have missed if my so-called failures had been "successes!" Every step I've taken has prepared me for the next one. As an example, when I was Clerk for my church, I decided to take a course in Speedwriting Shorthand. I had no idea why I wanted to do so. Though I was not the best student (far from it), I was asked to teach because they felt I had the qualities needed to be a good teacher. I resigned my position as Clerk (which I had done for 11 years) and started teaching. Then I realized why I had wanted to take the course: I LOVED teaching! Next to being a parent, it was the most rewarding job. In one way, it's a little like raising a family -- you encourage, persuade, reassure, motivate your students. And the rewards of knowing you had given someone the confidence to go on, especially when they felt they were failing, was a gift beyond measure. I was soon made manager of the school and then bought the school. After 10 or more years, I retired and closed the school.
How did the Bible help you in your business?
When I started managing the secretarial school and finally bought it, there were things I needed to know about running it. So, I had to depend on the secretary, who had been with the school for many years and had hoped she would be made manager and owner. She made life rather difficult for me, continually undermining me and knifing me in the back. It was a struggle at first not to defend myself or correct the rumors she was trying to spread. But at that point, I still needed her. I felt trapped -- until I thought about Joseph, my favorite character in the Bible, and all he had to go through. He never blamed anyone else or tried to defend himself. My problems seemed so petty in comparison. When the time came to let her go, she was shocked. But she came in one day later to tell me that it was the best thing that had ever happened to her. So, it worked out very amicably for both of us.
How did you get into writing?
Actually, I've always been writing, even as a small child sending postcards home, then at boarding school when Mother was ill, writing her reams and reams almost every day. And when our boys were young, I wrote letters to family and friends. Writing was my way of keeping in touch. Later (about 50 years after my mother’s passing), I started getting up in the middle of the night, going down to my desk, and writing about Mother for several hours before going back to bed. I thought that if I could write about her, let others know what she was like, they might love her as much as I did, even though I knew this wasn't possible. Finally, after weeks of doing this, the flood gates opened, and I sobbed and sobbed for the first time and had to stop writing. Then, after I got that out of my system, I was able to go on to other writings and found I LOVED it. But I had never thought of myself as a writer. My mother was the playwright, and my sister (two years older than I) the poet. It wasn't until I took a class about 10-15 years ago that I realized I really COULD write. The teacher gave me the confidence I needed, the push to do what I love. I love to write about things and people I know and personal experiences that have affected my life or the lives of others I love. I’ve had articles and testimonials of healings through prayer published in periodicals and book compilations. Currently, the local newspaper, The Darien News Review, publishes my work. It’s no big deal, but it's fun to see the articles in print and to hear from different people after they have read one of them.
How did you get into politics?
Well, I’m not in politics; my son is. I'm politically "active" only in that I campaign vigorously for my son, Chris, and have done so ever since he first ran for public office as a State Representative. In fact, Bud and I used to campaign together. The first time, we knew we got a lot of votes for Chris since many people told us that they had voted for him because they felt if anyone would campaign as hard as his parents had, he must be pretty good. Chris likes me to keep a low profile, and I can see the wisdom of that. I'm continually in awe of the way Chris handles himself and the way he doesn't "take the bait." He is more like Joseph than anyone I know. He never barbs the arrow, even though many are slung at him.
What’s the secret to a long and happy life?
To love and be loved, to show respect for others, and to be happy! My father once said to me, "Oh, if one only had one’s health, one could be happy." And I blurted out (at age 19), "Oh, Pops, I think if you're happy, you're healthy." I don't know if he was more surprised at my answer or that I had contradicted him, something I had never, ever done before. Many people make a big deal about every little thing they could feel negative about. I remember crying about something (no idea what) when I was quite young (maybe only 12 or so) and said to myself, “This will all be forgotten by tomorrow so why am I wasting time crying, and are my tears real or is this just ‘acting’?” We make our own heaven or hell by what we think and therefore do. We have that power, given to us by God. We can be miserable and think everything is going wrong, and it will, or we can be happy. One can wallow in self-pity, or rise out of it. We have that choice, and whatever we decide determines what takes place. Rather than get caught up in reasons to be miserable, we can count our blessings.
As to a long and happy marriage, I know the answer to that -- to continue to show the same love and respect for each other through the years that you showed before marriage. When we were first married, we were with another couple who were bickering and putting each other down. We knew that they could never have done that before marriage, or they’d never have gotten married, so we resolved always to love each other. And we did for over 64 years.
Is there any advice you’d give others?
I really feel ridiculous trying to give anyone advice. I guess that's one of the blessings of getting "older:" it keeps you young when you realize how very little you really do know and how much more there is to know. But there are a few things I’ve learned. Like many young people, we used to think if we only had money for this, that, or the other. But I remember writing something to a friend some time ago: “Never pray for material wealth or success because you may get it. But you'll never be satisfied with it. You'll always want more. But pray for happiness and contentment because you'll have it in abundance, and those can never be taken from you because they’re gifts from God.” Actually we don't "pray” for these “things," we acknowledge that we already have them because all good comes directly from God. I guess any advice I could give those who go to work or run their own home is: Do your very best, whether you think the job is beneath you or too difficult for you. Then you're prepared for the next step of progress that God has in store for you. And never, ever feel sorry for yourself. That's such a waste of time. Focus on your blessings.