A couple of weeks ago, Bill and I had the pleasure of spending a delightful afternoon with Evelyn Shelagowski, the first resident of The Village at Grand Traverse Commons. Our original plan was to learn more about this unique community from Evelyn’s point of view. What we didn’t expect was to meet such a lovely, inspirational woman with a story to tell all her own.
We first met Evelyn outside Cuppa Joe, and were immediately drawn to her energy. Shortly into the conversation, she popped up ready to give us a quick tour and show us her place. She wasn’t kidding when she said we would take a quick walk. At 89 years young, she walks every day, not just a stroll, but more of a power walk. Evelyn waved, smiled and chatted with everyone along the way, seeming to know every resident and employee by name. It’s easy to see she loves her home in this vibrant community and sharing it with visitors from all over the world.
Living on a farm and losing both parents while in her teens, Evelyn never completed High School, and when her children were old enough to help with the housework and meals, they encouraged her to go back to school. She chose to skip high school all together and go to college instead. She was accepted into a program at Delta College in Bay City where she enjoyed two years studying architecture under a student of Frank Lloyd Wright. Part of her studies included the beautiful buildings of the Northern Michigan Asylum in Traverse City. As soon as she heard of the renovation project, she jumped at the chance to live in a “castle” and moved in a little over 11 years ago.
Walking into Evelyn’s homey living space, you quickly see the importance of art in her life. Every direction you look is another beautiful piece of Evelyn’s artwork. Over the years, Evelyn’s work has been shown in galleries all over the United States and won top awards. She has traveled from coast to coast, showing her work and sharing her love of art by teaching others. Her pieces range from large murals to tiny miniatures. She still paints, but these days sticks to smaller projects often using recycled materials.
On the day of our visit, Evelyn zipped around her place, showing us one interesting piece after another. She is so full of energy, it’s incredible. In addition to her artwork, music has always been an important part of Evelyn’s life. As we enjoyed her displays of artwork, she popped in a Scott Joplin CD. We soon found ourselves laughing and dancing in her kitchen. Like Evelyn says, “Who can sit still with that music playing?”
No doubt Evelyn loves to entertain, and we were in for a treat as she picked up her accordion and serenaded us with one great tune after another!
Evelyn started playing the piano by ear at a very young age and eventually switched to the accordion. She’s still able to pick up a tune by listening, trying it out on her small electric keyboard, and eventually transferring to her accordion. If you’re lucky you might get a chance to hear her play at special events in The Village Commons. She loves sharing her music with everyone, young and old.
Besides sharing her music, Evelyn feels very strongly about the importance of giving children the gift of art. She gave me some great tips for art projects with my own grandchildren, just as she continues to share with her 9 grandchildren, and 9 great grandchildren, teaching them all to paint as soon as they’re able to hold a brush.
Impromptu art classes with Evelyn happen all the time at The Village. Seeing the joy others receive is her reward for giving away all these free lessons.
Evelyn says she can teach anyone to paint, but it was a little intimidating at first as she gathered her supplies and took us out on the porch for our painting lesson. The beautiful Sunday afternoon, painting on her porch, brought back fond memories of my childhood. I forgot how much I used to love drawing, painting and coloring. I even remember learning some of the “tricks” Evelyn showed us starting with eggs or figure 8’s and turning them into ducks and chickens. It was relaxing, meditative, and just plain fun. What a great reminder of how important it is to share art and music with children. That was a blessing in my childhood, and something we can all share with our children and grandchildren, even if we aren’t amazing artists like Evelyn.
When I asked Evelyn what has brought the greatest joy to her life, she said her family. Evelyn and Eugene Shelagowski enjoyed nearly 53 years of marriage, building their own log home, and raising their children in the countryside of Linwood, Michigan.
There have been struggles and hardships throughout Evelyn’s life, but she has always persevered. Living in the country, working hard, and missing the opportunity to go to high school didn’t stop her from going straight to college at a later date. She lost one parent when she was 16, the other when she was 17, but feels blessed by the families who took in her and a younger sister. She speaks fondly of her different moms along the way and says she has hitchhiked all over the state of Michigan. Her family is what has brought her the greatest joy. She raised four wonderful children, but also had the heartbreak of losing one baby at 3 months. You can hear the fondness in her voice when she speaks of her loving husband who passed away 16 years ago. There were other difficulties along the way, like the time a scammer stole all of her artwork at a show. She broke her back in 1998, but that didn’t stop her The doctor put her in an iron brace and told her to walk straight and fast every day. Her back healed and she never stopped walking. She takes 2-3 walks every day and never misses no matter how she feels. What an inspiration – I was feeling a little lazy today, but after a vibrant conversation with Evelyn pushed myself out the door for a walk and feel so much better because of it – thanks Evelyn!
Evelyn is happy to share her life and stories with others, but is careful not to dwell on the negative. She’s quick to put on a smile, switch back to the present, and speak of all the blessings in her life. We all have experiences in life that makes us who we are. Evelyn is a great example of continuing to embrace life with energy and enthusiasm no matter how difficult it can be at times.
I had another great conversation with Evelyn on Monday afternoon. She had already walked to the Village Farmer’s Market in the Piazza at The Village, an event she never misses. From there she treated four lucky children to an art lesson. Finally, after a visit with her cousin, she was inside resting up. That might seem like a full day, but she still planned to get in another walk or two before the day was over and perhaps play some cribbage with friends.
When I asked her how she manages to do some much and be so active, she said “I’m an old farmhand. Working hard is what you do every day.” It’s a way of life that has carried through and keeps her active today. She also says it’s easy when you live your passion. Music and art are Evelyn’s passions, and both have always been a part of her life. When she hears someone make a comment like “I used to play accordion” She says don’t say used to, get it out now and start playing again, now’s when you need it! Good advice Evelyn – I’ve got to get busy practicing my piano again!
It’s interesting how people show up in our lives. All because of my interest in The Village, I now have three new friends – Eveyln and her daughters Ann & Jane who were happy to share stories and pictures of their inspirational mother. Her daughter Jane says “Mom is a very loving, caring and compassionate woman, who loves to share her talents with others. She would do anything for anybody.” Ann shared much of the same sentiments, and also expressed what a good memory her mom has. Ann loves to hear about her mom’s interesting childhood and how she was so artistic right from the beginning.
Evelyn is a great example of a life well lived and inspiration to all of us. She celebrates her age and is proud to say she’ll be 90 on her next birthday. I see people half her age who have folded to life’s challenges, giving up their joy. By staying engaged and active she continues to live a fulfilling life, bringing joy to so many others which in turn brings her immense joy. Evelyn constantly expresses her inner light, and it’s a blessing to be in her presence.
Next time you visit The Village Commons, keep an eye out for Evelyn. Chances are she’ll be wearing a cute hat, power walking through the property or visiting the market. You might find her outdoors giving an art lesson to a group of children. Some days you can find her enjoying the sunshine on the porch or hear her playing a lively tune on the accordion. If you’re lucky enough to see her, stop and say hello, that is if she hasn’t already engaged you in a conversation. She loves to meet people and will no doubt brighten your day!