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Cooking with Rebecca Bent

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

A Hard-Working and Happy Man - William Sledge, Oyster Shucker

    Meeting William Sledge is like meeting the epitome of “old school.” William has made more than a living. He has built a *happy life* upon the “old school” values and beliefs that have worked for him for over 50 years: devoting himself to his wife and family; working as an oyster shucker as well as other jobs to keep cash flowing; and managing money well by saving up for the things his family needed or wanted.

   William started shucking oysters on the Eastern Shore of Virginia when he was fifteen years old in the ‘60s. He and his family worked in the fields during the spring and summer and then shucked oysters in the fall and winter. At the time, that was all that was available where they lived. He quit school in the eighth grade to work year round because, as the oldest of eleven children, his income was needed to help support the family. He left home when he was 18, and when he was 21, he met and married his wife, Diane. Forty-four years later, they are still married and have three grown children, all of whom are doing well. One daughter is a pharmacist. Another is working at a hospital and going to school at night. Their son has made a career of the Air Force for 22 years. After the children reached high school, William’s wife, Diane, worked at Rubberset in Crisfield, a company that makes paint brushes. They now have seven grandchildren, the oldest of whom starts college at Georgia State this year. William is proud of his family and attributes their success to the values he and his wife passed down to them.

    One of the values he has passed down is the value of work. Now age 66, William is still shucking oysters. Currently, he works at Metompkin Bay Oyster Company in Crisfield shucking oysters every day from 5:00 AM until 10:00 AM along with 50-60 other oyster shuckers. He is one of the fastest shuckers and can shuck a gallon of oysters in about twenty minutes. His hands move so fast, “you can hardly see them,” he said, while never having an injury or a cut. “But,” he adds, “there are people faster than me.” The men and women joke and sing as they shuck the oysters. They are, according to William, “a happy crowd.” But oyster shucking is not the only work William has found to do. He always looked for ways to keep the money flowing. “You can’t sit in the house watching TV and expect to have anything. You have to go out and make money.” He worked at Chesapeake Plywood Company in Pocomoke for 18 years, where he worked his way up to foreman, overseeing 18 men the last five years he was there. For the past several years, fire companies in Maryland and Delaware hire him to shuck oysters on the half shell for the raw bar at their annual firemen get togethers. He also finds things at yard sales and flea markets that he takes home and restores for resale because he has always been good with his hands. Currently, he’s busy making barbecue grills for others using 50 to 275 gallon tanks which he converts into a barbecue grill with doors. And, in addition, he cuts grass. One customer whose grass he cut for years thought so much of him, she gave him her husband’s car when her husband died. William drives it with pride. It’s one of four vehicles he owns, none of which was bought “on time,” and all of which cost him “less than $4000 total,” he says with a smile. 
   When it comes to cars and money, William is definitely “old school.” He saves for what he wants. He said he never had a new car in his life. “If I spend $25,000, it will be on my house,” he explains. “I can’t see a person making payments for 5-6 years, while paying rent. People are hollarin’ ‘it’s hard times’. It’s not ‘hard times’. Why pay $25,000 for a brand new car, when you’re rentin’ a place to stay? You can’t have nothin’ if you do that.” 

   Instead, William has invested his money in his home and property. He bought his home when he was only 23 years old - a very small house on two acres of land. As his family grew, he saved up the cash to build onto it. “I haven’t had a mortgage payment in 33 years,” he says with pride. 

   That’s not the only thing he’s proud of. He’s proud of the fact that he’s never been in trouble and never been out of work. Even now at age 66, he says, “I can always find something to do. I never wanted to depend on nobody, so I learned to make money. You don’t have to steal. There’s ways to make money and be honest too. I’ve always been a go-getter, and I taught my children to do the same.” 

   There are times, however, when William could use a little help. Recently, he started to work on putting a new roof on his house. Six of his friends saw he was trying to get work done, so they joined in to help, and together they finished the job in one day. William noted that his friends are black, white, and Hispanic. “Prejudice don’t bother me,” he said. “As long as people treat me good, I do the same. That has always worked for me. I don’t care who you are or where you came from, no matter what nationality you are, you’re gonna need somebody sometime or another.” William’s friends are true friends, and they help each other when the time comes that help is needed. 

   Along with his values of working hard, saving for what you want, and cultivating good friendships, most importantly, William has devoted himself to his wife and family. He and Diane recently celebrated 44 years of marriage with family and friends. “Me and my wife are just as happy as two peas in a pod,” he beams. They enjoy going to flea markets and yard sales together, and they travel whenever they like. The other thing he does for enjoyment is fishing. “I’m going to stay active as long as I can. There’s one guy now who shucks oysters with us who’s 80, and he’s just as fast as I am. That’s inspiring! I hope that I can work right up to the time when the Lord comes to take me home.” 

   William sums up his life by saying, “I’m a happy man. I have no regrets.” With a long lasting marriage, seeing his children and grandchildren doing well, financial freedom, good health, and a positive attitude, it’s not hard to see why he is happy and has no regrets. Now that’s inspiring!


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