Difference Makers

Peeples Choice: Shelby and Willena Peeples Establish a Legacy at Dalton State

By David J. Elrod ‘88

Photographs by Arc Studios Photography

Growing up in the Dawnville community on the east side of Whitfield County, young Shelby Peeples knew the hard times of Depression-era Georgia. He was born in his grandmother’s house. The grandfather had been a captain in the Confederacy during the Civil War; his widow was the last surviving Confederate widow in Georgia.

“Mother and Daddy didn’t have a house of their own, so we lived with my grandmother in Dawnville,” he recalls. “We didn’t have running water – that didn’t happen until I was 17 – so what we had was a house of four rooms and a path, not a bath.”

Money was not plentiful in the Peeples house, but life’s lessons were. As a youth growing up in a home “that was po-ooh-or – so poor you spell it with four o’s,” Shelby learned the values of hard work, self-reliance, and resourcefulness. At age 11, he sold his first cow.

“I knew what I got I had to work for,” he says. “There was nothing to inherit.”

“Even though we didn’t have much, I feel now like I was fortunate to be born where I was,” he reflects. “Everybody who’s from here has received a blessing by being born here.”

One of Shelby’s blessings was in the person of Willena Davis, whose upbringing was similar to Shelby’s. “We were poor,” she remembers, “but we were happy, always happy.” Willena’s father was a carpenter, and her mother worked part-time at Evans Rug. The Davis family knew Dalton chenille pioneer Catherine Evans Whitener.

Starting school together in the first grade at Dawnville Elementary School, Shelby and Willena became friends and, ultimately, high school sweethearts. By the tenth grade, they were dating each other exclusively.

“I think I was his sweetheart before he was mine,” Willena says. “I had two brothers, and I didn’t want to have anything to do with another boy.”

“I wanted her,” Shelby says. “I wanted to get married and have a family.”

They were two of the 18 members of the Dawnville High School Class of 1953. In June of that year, they were engaged. Shelby borrowed $50 for the ring. In August, they were married. They were 18 years old.

“The most important thing you can do in life is pick your partner,” Shelby says. He marvels at “how someone can pick a perfect partner at age 18.” Maturity and judgment come into play, he says, but Willena’s view is more philosophical. “It was from up above,” she says, pointing skyward. “It was just meant to be.” They celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary last year.

The newlyweds set up housekeeping in a rented three-room apartment in Dalton. Their first son, Alan, was born in 1954, followed by daughter Jane in 1955, and son Tom in 1957. They had three children by the time they were 22. A fourth son, Bryan – “the change-of-life baby,” they call him – was born in 1967.

Their hardscrabble childhoods were still very much part of their lives. Shelby ran a printing press for L.A. Lee Printing Company, and Willena stayed at home to raise the children. They practiced the frugality they had learned early on.

“We dreamed a lot back then,” Willena recalls. “Shelby worked very hard, and he would do things on the side to make money. He would buy a used car, clean it up, and resell it for $50 or $100 more than he paid for it.”

One of her favorite memories now is of the time Shelby bought a pick-up truckload of hand tools: wrenches, screwdrivers, and the like. “I thought we were ruined when he did that!” she declares. “Shelby would come home for lunch and take a brown paper bag full of the tools back to work with him where he sold them to his co-workers a handful at a time. There’s no telling how much profit he made on those tools.”

The Peeples children vividly remember these early years. Shelby made a living for the family, and Willena made a home.

“He worked all the time,” Jane says, but “he could not have accomplished what he did without her,” says Alan.

The children recall a highly regimented routine in a loving household growing up.

“Saturday was not a play day,” Tom remembers. “We worked. We washed and waxed the cars, mowed the yard, shined our shoes. We’d paint the house, paint fences, change the oil in the car. Shelby even did his own exterminating, going to the store to buy chemicals and then going up under the house to spray for pests. We spread chicken litter on the yard for fertilizer because it was less expensive than store-bought treatments.”

“He was tough,” Willena recalls Shelby then. “He pushed the kids to do the right thing, to work hard. Things had to be done!” She laughs at the thought. “He really hasn’t changed a whole lot. He can come up with more jobs than anybody you’ve ever seen!”

“Growing up that way was a combination of Father Knows Best and The Bridge on the River Kwai,” Alan says, chuckling at the memory.

If Shelby was the family taskmaster, Willena was “the nurturer,” Jane says.

When asked to describe their parents, the children’s responses tell a tale. Shelby, they say, is “honest,” “driven,” “principled,” “disciplined,” “predictable,” and “frank,” with lots of pauses thrown in to make sure they’re getting him just right. Willena is “giving,” “loving,” “kind and warm,” “gentle,” and “spontaneous.” The words flow freely. “It’s easy to describe Mother,” Alan says.

Bryan says Shelby “is like a junebug on a string.” Willena, on the other hand, “is very down to earth. She’s the glue that holds the family together.”

“When it comes to something she can love, there is no one better,” the children agree.

“She’s very strong,” one of them says, meaning both physically and mentally. Bryan tells of a time when his mother hauled firewood and says she picked him up until he was six, Tom until he was ten.

She’s known both inside and outside the family as an exceptional cook, with biscuits, lasagna, and banana pudding among her specialties. “The kitchen is her domain,” Tom says. “She will not delegate in there.”

“No wonder I love the kitchen,” Willena says now. “I grew up in it.”

Willena fulfilled the traditional role of a 1950s and -60s stay-at-home wife and mother, earning her children’s lasting esteem in the process. She confesses now to crying each August when school went back in session: she hated to see the children’s summer come to an end.

“Mother cooked three meals a day then,” Alan remembers. “We never had sandwiches.”

Bryan recalls a time, though, when Willena was away tending to an ill parent, and he was left in his father’s care. “All he could make was bacon, so all we ate then was bacon sandwiches.”

Shelby and Willena instilled the values of hard work, responsibility, and commitment to family first at home with chores and to-do lists, and then, as the children grew older, at one of Shelby’s plants.

“When Tom was a student at Dalton State, he was doing quite well in basketball, but not in his classes,” Willena recalls with a grin. “Shelby told him, ‘I think it’s time you started at my college,’ and put him to work pulling dye becks,” one of the hardest and hottest jobs in a carpet mill.

Shelby had followed up his L.A. Lee experience with a stint as an insurance salesman for Franklin Life, and within a couple of years he was the company’s top producer nationwide. After that, he went into business for himself and became an entrepreneur. Today, the family’s business interests include banking, chemicals, real estate, and textile manufacturing and marketing. Sons Tom and Bryan and daughter Jane work with their father; son Alan is an accomplished designer.

Shelby still possesses the same drive and determination that propelled him to success in business, and his family looks on him with respect and admiration. Legendary both inside the family and out for the long hours he once put into building his businesses, Shelby still keeps a schedule that would exhaust men half his age.

“He can’t find his way home until the streetlights come on,” Willena likes to say. “He’s all business,” the children echo, citing the paperwork Shelby takes home with him every night and even on trips. He doesn’t use the word “vacation.” His dog, Rudy, lies at his feet every night while his master goes through the daily box of papers. The children say the last movie he saw was The Firm, which was released in 1993. “Work, that’s his hobby,” Bryan says. “He reads all kinds of things: emails, trade magazines, newspapers, financial reports – everything about the business. It’s endless.”

But Shelby doesn’t use email or the internet himself, instead relying on others to print things for him that he should read or know about. “He’d never go to bed if he knew how to work a computer and get on the internet,” Tom says. “He wants everyone around him to use them, though.”

His relationship with personal technology extends as far as his cell phone. It’s a flip-phone that his children found for him on eBay.

Shelby tells a story about a typical business deal, one of hundreds he’s done in his time.

“I like to have a frank conversation with any future business partner,” he begins. “We talk about strategic goals, revenue potential, and market evaluations and so on. Then we can really get down to business, and I tell them, ‘If we’re going to do business together, you should know my net worth. You should have an opportunity to know what I’m worth and be able to see it for yourself.’”

One can only imagine what goes through the prospective partner’s mind.

“’Here, I want you to know,’ I say, and I hand them a photograph album.” The album is full of family photos: Willena, their four children, nine grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren. “’That’s my family, and they mean everything to me,’ I tell them. ‘I would be nothing without them. That is my true net worth.’”

His dependence on his family is deep, his love for Willena is boundless, and the Peeples children, having observed it all firsthand and up close for their entire lives, are in awe of it.

“He wants to be nowhere more than a day without Mother,” Alan says. “Shelby is very dependent on Mom,” says Bryan. “The things he’s not, she is, and vice versa,” Tom says. And then, as if Shelby and Willena were one person – and they may as well be for the way their family and friends refer to them as “Shelby-and-Willena” as if it was one word – there’s this from Jane: “They’re the complete package. You just don’t know where one of them ends and the other begins.”

Now in their eighth decades, Shelby and Willena reflect on their lives, their family, and their future.

“I’ve accomplished what I wanted,” Shelby says. “I never thought of ‘what if.’ I had to work a whole lot harder – two times, three times – than the average guy, and I realized this at an early age. I have no regrets.” And then he reaches back to his childhood in Dawnville: “I have accomplished more than I ever dreamed as a boy. I didn’t realize all of these things were possible.”

“I’ve had a good life and the finest partner anyone could ever have,” Shelby says.

Willena sums up her life this way: “I’m just too happy for anyone to mess up my day.” And she delivers that with the Willena-esque gleam in her eye, eyebrows slightly raised, and mouth breaking into her signature smile.

“We’ve been blessed,” she admits. “And we want everyone else to have an opportunity to have what we’ve had.”

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