The most inspiring woman I know is Shirley Deane, a friend whom I’ve known for fifteen years. In the 1950s she was a talented N.Y. entertainer who walked away from a promising career in show business in order to work her way around the world searching for a more meaningful life. She ended up in South Africa during the height of apartheid. When she looked at a published directory of prominent South Africans, she was amazed to see that there was not a single black person listed.
Shirley immediately decided she would write the first Who’s Who of Black South Africans. She criss-crossed the country tape recording interviews with the most prominent black leaders of the era, but she was not prepared for the passionate and violent opposition that her seemingly benign project would stir. She received numerous death threats and survived at least two actual attempts on her life. At one point, all her interview tapes were surreptitiously erased. She persevered through it all, and Black South Africans, a Who’s Who was published by Oxford University Press in 1978.
There is much more to Shirley’s story. In the early 1960s she and a companion set out to drive a Land Rover from England to Kathmandu. When her traveling companion dropped out in Athens to get married, Shirley continued alone, covering the remaining distance of 3,600 miles over some of the most remote and dangerous terrain in the world. She was nearly caught in a violent revolution in the Middle East, spurned an effort by the CIA to recruit her, lived in an ashram in India, and ran a Red Cross refugee camp in Nepal.
Many of us talk about our principles while living our comfortable lives. Shirley Deane has lived her principles, passionately and without compromise, and her story should be an inspiration to everyone who is searching for meaning in today’s world.