In Memory of Shirley Wilkes-Johnson

image

In my travels around the United States, I’ve invariably been impressed by the level of activism occurring throughout Texas. For any number of reasons, you would expect vegetarian advocacy in Texas to lag behind that of other states. But the reality is that Texas has some of the best vegetarian advocacy organizations in the country, and the activists throughout that huge state do a better job of working together than anyplace else I’ve seen.

And for that, Shirley Wilkes-Johnson, who died suddenly this past weekend of a stroke, probably deserves more credit than anyone. Kaz Sephton, the president of the San Antonio Vegetarian Society, contributed the following remembrance:

To say that Shirley Wilkes-Johnson and I were kindred spirits is putting it mildly. A vibrant beam of light like hers cannot be extinguished by mere death and she has left a legacy of pure unchanging devotion to all animals.

I met Shirley (and her husband Ben) over half my life ago when she founded the Lone Star Vegetarian Network and had the audacity to plan and execute our first LSVN Vegan Chili Cook Off at the Farmer’s Market in Austin in 1988! It was an amazing event and we all bowed down to her. I was inspired by her youthful enthusiasm and boundless energy! She has since been the reigning vegan matriarch in Texas for 20 plus years. She effortlessly found a way to bring us all together under one umbrella, LSVN, and shared her wisdom and insight through state-wide meetings.

Shirley concocted amazing recipes and elaborately themed cooking classes (e.g. Ancient Aztec Grains), wrote a speech on the Fascinating and Little Known History of Vegetarianism which she perfected and was so proud of, and Shirley’s own radio show, Go Vegan Texas which evolved into Vegan World Radio after 6 years (as not even Texas could contain the force of Shirley Wilkes-Johnson!) Because of her, I have dear vegan friends all over the state, and beyond whom I have met, talked with, eaten with, and sometimes stayed with when traveling.

Shirley held an unshakable belief that we had all been together before in former incarnations. She said in an e-mail, "I swear I remember us pledging loyalty to each other at the Pythagorean Academy" she said, "I am sure Kimberly (Lewis) was also there with us over 2,500 years ago." Only Shirls could comfort us this much after her very sudden and shocking passing.

Shirley had just completed a 300 recipe vegan cookbook and was working with Carol Adams (The Sexual Politics of Meat) on publishing it. We must endeavor to see it in print! Yesterday, she was due to fly to Los Angeles to receive an award today from Supreme Master Ching Hai for her work with the vegan Loving Hut restaurants.

This is the bio she sent to me in 2008:

  • Native Texan
  • Vegetarian: since 1961
  • Vegan: since 1984
  • Director of the Lone Star Vegetarian Network (LSVN): 13 years
  • Director of the South Texas Vegetarian Society: 7 years
  • Board member of Houston Vegetarian Society: 2 years
  • Board member of the Houston Animal Rights Team: 2 years
  • Radio talk show host and newspaper reporter in the mid 70′s
  • Vegan cooking class instructor since 1987
  • Current Public Speaker
  • Co-host of Go Vegan Texas!  on KPFT Pacifica radio in Houston
  • Married to vegan husband (He was a hunter when I met him)
  • Four generations of veg women:   Shirley and daughter, granddaughter and great grand daughter

Shirley’s “Mini Me’s” of which I am so proud to be one, have much work left to do for the animals. Shirley was absolutely certain of all her deeply felt beliefs. She made being vegan look like the most natural thing in the Universe and was so sure the world would agree with her, that she once had “Vegetarian World by 2000” bumper stickers made.

Everyone has their personal stories about how Shirley’s life work inspired them, how they never wanted to let her down, how she was their biggest supporter, right? And how we all wanted to be like her when we grew up! Searching through my old messages for meaning yesterday, I was selfishly relieved when I re-read my gushings of adoration to her. She had a purposeful life, the kind we all want, with clear, vital direction. My life is better for having known her and I am blessed for the times we had together and her visits to San Antonio to share her knowledge with my group. She was my genuine heroine.

Shirley’s husband of 44 years this year is Ben Johnson. I never heard her introduce him without referring to him as her soul mate. Her last hand written post on FaceBook said, “Report from Paradise: Ben and wind chimes. Birds singing and wind chimes making music in Paradise.” It included a photo of her soul mate, Ben Johnson in their garden with giant wind chimes with tiny orbs of colored glass and it made me sigh with envy. I remember a time when they stayed with me in San Antonio and both of them squeezed into an oversized red armchair while tasting their first dessert wine, because she was such a great sport who would try anything once. They looked like grinning teenagers in that chair and that vision is pressed hard into my memory.

Shirley was an extraordinary person who demonstrated that a happy and fulfilling life is indeed compatible with working passionately for animal protection. She singlehandedly transformed the vegetarian activist scene throughout Texas, and we all owe her an enormous debt.