Interviewee: Stephen Shey
Interviewer: Julian Pleasants
Date: May 10, 2004.
P: This is Julian Pleasants. It is May 10, 2004, and I am speaking with Steve Shey
in his home. Steve, tell me when and where you were born.
S: I was born March 5, 1938, in Berlin, Germany.
P: And what did your parents do?
S: My father was an attorney, a German lawyer, and my mother, outside of being a
housewife, also wrote children's books.
P: What kind of children's books?
S: Just in German. And she had a few of them published. I never got to see them
or even see any remnants of them. They were all left behind when we left
P: When did you leave Germany?
S: In 1939. Early 1939.
P: And why did you leave?
S: Well, we were from a Jewish family, and it was not appropriate to be Jewish in
Berlin in 1939.
P: So this is after the Nuremberg Laws [laws clarifying the position of Jews in the
Third Reich] in 1935.
S: That's correct.
P: Do you recall your father or members of your family talking about what it was like
to be in Berlin right in the middle of the Third Reich?
S: My father was never honest about the entire situation; he was in total disbelief of
the whole process. Although, certainly after the war, he recognized what the
Nazis had done, but he was in total denial during the 1930s.
P: Of course, this is prior to the final solution. But nonetheless, with the Nuremberg
Laws, obviously, professional people were restricted in what they could do and
buying property, so it must have been difficult to some degree, in terms of
making a living as a lawyer.
S: I think for him it probably was, and I'm not sure how active an attorney he was.
He was substantially well off. We had nannies and cooks from what I was told.
So, I'm not sure if that was an inheritance from his father or as a result of his
brilliant practice, but I somehow think he was not one who really soiled his hands
much or did a whole lot. He was more of an intellect, [and he] spoke seven or
eight languages fluently.
P: Now, you left in 1939 before World War II, before the invasion of Poland?
S: That is correct.
P: And so, obviously, there was some knowledge of potential problems you would
face. After September 1, it would have been very difficult to leave Germany,
would it not?
S: I think we would have still been there, maybe not too long a period, if it wasn't for
my aunt, my mother's sister, who was in America at the time. She had emigrated
in the earlier 1930s with her family.
P: So, were they the ones who encouraged your family to leave?
S: They actually made it possible. My uncle was a senator from the free state of
Danzig, so he was a politician, and he had many contacts throughout Europe.
The options for us were not too many. I believe one was Cuba, another was
Shanghai, and through our uncle, he was able to impress on the members of
Parliament, some of the members of Parliament, to give us visas to go to
England. So, we were able to leave Germany on very short notice and get to
P: And your father had to leave the home and the practice. In other words, you just
took what you could carry.
S: What we took were maybe a suitcase each, and you were thoroughly searched,
from what I understood, and they smuggled some jewelry, not much, but some
items of jewelry on their person, and that was it.
P: So you had to start fresh.
S: [ We had to] start from scratch. And my father, not being much of a working-type
person, had great difficulty in finding employment, even in England.
P: Well, I know that Mr. Frank, the father of Anne Frank, was so disbelieving of what
could happen, he kept his family in Amsterdam, and it turned out, as you know,
the entire family was killed, and he's the only one who survived. And so,
obviously, your family had a much more practical sense of the fact that you
needed to get out, and get out then.
S: Well, once again, thanks to my aunt and uncle, because I think if it was left to my
father and mother, we would have stayed in Berlin until the end, until they found
a solution for us.
P: You would have almost certainly been in the camps, particularly if you were in
S: I would have not survived, because as a one-year-old, I don't think that, or even
in the early 1940s as a four-year-old, I don't think that the survival rate for infants
was very good.
P: Infinitesimal. Now, I know that in trying to get to the United States during this
period of time is very difficult too. You probably know about the St. Louis [A
steamship that went from Hamburg to Cuba in 1939 carrying 1,128 Jewish
refugees, of which only 22 were allowed to disembark], which came over and had
to go back, and most people on that ship ended up going to the camps. So, it
was virtually impossible to get to the United States. I know some people did go
to Cuba, and from Cuba might have gotten into the United States. Probably,
your only option at this time, your only decent option, would have been either
Canada or Great Britain. And since your family members were in England. ..
S: No, they were here in the United States.
P: They were in the United States. Okay, so where did you go in England?
S: We started in London, on the outskirts of London, I believe for about a year, a
year and a half, and then we moved to the western, northwestern border of
England in a little town called Kendal, in the Lake District, Cumbria or Umbria,
close to the Scottish border. [Located] almost on the straits that led to Ireland. It
was a charming little town, I have vivid memories of it as a three, four, five-year-
old. I have pleasant memories of living in a two-family home without having
refrigeration for the food. Our refrigerator was the window-sill. And not having
eggs, or having one egg a week or something, [everything was] very minimal.
P: Now, this is during rationing due to World War II.
S: That's right.
P: So, there would not have been much food for anybody, although living where you
were, you could at least get some farm products.
S: It was more rural, and more agricultural, and I think we had some benefits from
P: As you probably know, a great many British families sent their children out to the
more rural areas to live because of the bombing.
S: And as is the custom with the English, they generally send their children to
boarding school, normally. So, while I was living in England, I went to two
different boarding schools that were charming and I can remember only good
memories. I have nothing bad to say about my English experience.
P: Now who came with you? You had a brother, right?
S: I have an older brother, [who is] three years older.
P: Is this Thomas?
S: Thomas. My father, Oscar, my mother, Ilse; her mother and father, Alexander
and Lina Wiener [came with me]. [There were] six of us. And there were only five
visas out of Germany.
P: So, you didn't have one.
S: I didn't have one. They didn't know about me. So, they had to scurry, but they
finally got the sixth one at the last minute.
P: Were they concerned that you would not be able to leave?
S: Well, they didn't know about me, that was the funny thing, until the last minute.
And they said, wait a minute, you've only sent five visas, we need a sixth one.
But they were able to get the sixth one, though.
P: Did your parents ever talk to you about how difficult it was to leave Germany
during that time? It's one thing to have visas to England, it's another thing to get
out of Germany.
S: Not so much the physically leaving, but the angst and the heartache of leaving.
My father was a veteran of World War I, on the wrong side, but nonetheless, he
was a big admirer of the Kaiser. He was born in Prussia, so he was a real
Prussian. A very rigid and, much like you would see, what normal Prussians
would be. So, once again, he was in total disbelief at this whole happening, and
he thought, surely the German people would wake up tomorrow and remove this
wallpaper hanger [Hitler].
P: What about his work, and your mother's parents? What did everybody do while
they were there? You were in England five or six years?
S: We were there for six years. My grandfather's background was that he was quite
substantial, he had three or four department stores in Germany, so he was quite
substantial. And I think he was able to salvage some of that money while he was
still in Germany, but he couldn't bring it with him to England. My grandfather and
grandmother did not work while they were in England; they were elderly, I'd say
they were in their seventies. My father worked in a factory, I think for the war
effort. My mother stayed home. She was somewhat frail and sickly most of her
life. She was not a healthy person, as we know what health may be, and she
was relegated to staying at home, and maybe being in bed quite a lot.
P: And she passed away in 1946?
S: She passed away when we came to America, almost that same year that we
came, or less than a year later.
P: Did everybody speak English when they got to England? Obviously, your father
S: My grandmother spoke nothing but German. My mother spoke English, she
spoke three or four languages quite well, French, English, German.
P: So did you grow up in sort of a mixed-language household?
S: Well, I guess you could call it that, but I didn't spend much time at home. I was
either in boarding schools, or in other places besides being home. When I was
home, certainly, we spoke English.
P: Now, talk about your boarding school. You went to Yelland Manor.
S: That's right.
P: When did you go? How old were you?
S: I was probably four years old. That was probably the youngest they would allow
you, I would think. But I went there from probably four to five, and then to this
other one directly after that, probably closer, that's probably why [I moved,
because it was] closer to Kendal, and I remember going by train, so, probably in
the Lake District area, maybe around Manchester, somewhere around there.
P: So, you spent most of the year as young British kids did.
S: For the long holidays you would come home, yes.
P: What are your memories of the boarding school?
S: Just that I had a jolly good time there. Played a lot of football, which was soccer,
rode horses, they had horses at one of them, and I don't remember much about
learning, [or the] classroom, but obviously they had that there.
P: Usually the British boarding schools are quite strict and rather spartan. Do you
remember anything about the circumstances?
S: I didn't feel deprived. We had clothing, we had enough food, and we would
always look forward to packages coming from home. Every now and then they'd
send oranges. And I have some recollections and some memorabilia of letters
that I would write home that said, please send oranges. I think that's all I asked
for all the time.
P: Do you have any recollection at all, though it probably didn't bother you in the
Lake District, of the bombing?
S: [There is] Only one incident that I remember. When we were home for the
holidays, there was an incident where there was an air raid, and we went to the
shelter and the next morning we were walking down one of the main streets of
Kendal and we saw this building with the side of the wall off, and you could see
the bathtubs and the clothing that was there. I don't know if there were any
fatalities from that, but that was the only incident that I recall.
P: Because at this time they were starting to use those V-1, V-2 rockets.
S: Buzz bombs.
P: They were not very accurate.
S: Very indiscriminate.
P: They were, exactly. Obviously, not like the Blitz in London, but there were
people who did have certain misfortune, as it were.
S: I think that the only reason that anything happened in Kendall was by accident.
P: Now, what persuaded your family to decide to go to the United States? Once
again, I presume, this would be your ...
S: My aunt.
S: That's right. Irma Kamnitzer Colbert. She was the matriarch, but she was [also]
the majordomo of the entire family.
P: So, she persuaded your family that you needed to get out of England and come
S: And she pulled all the strings that had to be pulled to get us to America.
P: And when was that?
S: In 1945.
P: So, this would be in June of 1945.
S: Right at the end of the war.
P: So, the war in Europe is over, but the war in Asia has not yet ended. How did
you manage to get into the United States? Because again, even at this time, it
was very difficult.
S: I think, once again, it was my uncle's doing. Being a politician and knowing the
members of Parliament, I think there was some communication between
members of Parliament and Congress.
P: They had been in the United States for about ten years, right?
S: At that time, they were probably [in the United States for] ten years or more, yes.
P: So, when you came to the United States, you settled in Jamaica, New York.
S: That's right.
P: By this time, you're six ...
S: Seven years old.
P: Describe what you remember about coming to New York. Did you come in at
S: Ellis Island, that's right. I can remember the boat that took us over was the S. S.
Drottingholm, which was a Swedish transport during the war, it was used for
transporting the troops, but then it was quickly converted, and I can remember
the seven days or so to cross the Atlantic.
P: Was it pretty exciting for you?
S: It was. It was a holiday. It was one new thing after the next, and I can remember
standing and leaning over the rail and throwing up into the ocean. [Laughter.] I
remember that, being sick on-board. But I can remember Ellis Island, and my
father holding my hand, and we're all led naked into the showers. Not that it
meant anything to me, except I'd never seen so many naked people in my life.
P: At least these were real showers. Better than what you'd have had at Auschwitz.
S: And mostly adults. I'm sure as a kid I'd probably had baths and showers at the
P: So they gave you pretty strict medical exams?
S: Yes, we were all thoroughly inspected to make sure we weren't carrying
anything, [to make sure we didn't need to be] put in quarantine, nothing like that.
P: Well, I'm thinking it would be interesting to get your take on how you were
received in England, because first of all, you're German, and [you're] Prussian,
and you're Jewish. Was there any anti-Semitism?
S: Not that I saw at all. We were accepted. Our landlady, Mrs. Newcastle, was
fine. Her husband, Jack, liked to drink a lot, and would always stagger home
from the pub; and we would always make fun of that. But we were happy, happy,
children. We played in the river, the river was right next to the house, the river
Kent. Beautiful river. Fishing and everything in there, just delightful. We were
P: In many ways you avoided some of the more difficult circumstances in World War
S: Right. And I think part of the issue was that our family was never religious, never
practiced, so my father never thought anything could happen to him, because
although he was born Jewish, he said, I don't practice, I'm not like the rest of
them, I'm different. Which he was. But [he was] not very realistic.
P: What about the maternal grandparents? Were they Orthodox?
S: No. There wasn't anybody that had any strong urge to religion [in the family].
There was no practicing. I can remember once going to a synagogue, one time
in Kendall. I think there must have been maybe a dozen people there, that's it.
So there were other Jews in Kendall, but not practicing.
P: Also, your boarding school, I think, was a Protestant boarding school.
S: It probably was Anglican, I imagine. Most of them in England were, [so] that
would be a good guess.
P: But no proselytizing?
S: No, there wasn't any mandatory religious teachings.
P: Now, when you came to the United States, your maternal grandfather had
passed away in England.
S: That's correct. In Kendall
P: So now there are five of you.
S: That's right.
P: And you settle in Jamaica. What did your father do when you first settled in
S: He, once again, went to work in a toy factory. He wasn't qualified really to
practice law and do things that he did well. He was very learned, prolifically read
volumes of books, all books, all languages, but he was sort of a fish out of water.
P: It must have been very difficult for him.
S: He didn't know how to fit in. He really didn't. He was an anomaly. Not that he
was disliked, he was very particular in who he liked, so he had very few friends.
He had some relatives, there was a cousin or two that was in New York that had
survived the war, and of course, our aunt and uncle, who were, once again, on
my mother's side, not on his side.
P: And what did your uncle and aunt do?
S: My uncle was an attorney and a politician, and he had written a classic textbook
in German that every year was being used by the law students. He was forever
working on that book, revising it. As long as I knew him in America and as long
as he lived, he was in his office always working on his book.
P: This was a German law book?
P: And they were still using it?
S: Apparently. He was supposed to be quite well-recognized and well-respected.
P: You did not live with them per se, you lived in the same general area?
S: We actually lived in one of their houses that they had for rent. My aunt was quite
a business lady. She actually held the whole family together. If it wasn't for her,
no one else, really, had the business knowledge, she must have gotten it from
her father, who was a businessman. She held the whole family together and
made the income to keep her family going and [to] help us out wherever she
could. She had bought some houses and rented them, and we lived when we
first came here in one of her houses for about four months, and then when an
apartment opened up in the same building she was living in, we moved into that
P: Now we know where you get your business acumen. You get it from your aunt.
S: From my mother's side, definitely. [Laughter.]
P: Now, when you were there, where did you go to school?
S: To P. S. 170, a public school right on Parsons Boulevard, off Hillside Avenue. I
started off in the fourth grade, which probably would have made me nine years
old, but I was only seven. No, they actually started me in the third grade, and
then after the first year they jumped me to the fifth grade, so I was a year behind
as far as age but a year ahead in school.
P: And was that a difficult adjustment for you?
S: No, it was a piece of cake. It was easy. I've always been a jocular type of
person, I've always made light of things, and I made many friends and had lots of
good times. Schooling came fairly easy to me.
P: As we mentioned earlier, in 1946 your mother died. How did that change the
circumstances in your household?
S: In the apartment I had my grandmother, and my mother and my father, and then
my brother and I. And my brother, being three years older, he was ten and I was
seven, she died when, I guess I was eight, so he was eleven, he wasn't of any
help, and I wasn't of any help either. My father was lost, totally lost. He didn't
know how to he could cope. [He] couldn't cope with it. My grandmother still
couldn't cope either. She would cook and that's about all she could do. Cook
and do the laundry.
P: So, she would be in her late seventies?
S: Yes. And she lived, I think, when we came to America she lived first with my
aunt, because we only had a two-bedroom apartment, and I know my brother
and I were in one room, and my parents were in the other bedroom.
P: It would have been very difficult for her, because she's already made one
adjustment to Great Britain, now she has to adjust again. At that age, that's not
S: No, and she didn't speak much English, she spoke mostly German. [It was]
difficult to communicate with her, and I'm sure it was hard for her. But she had
her family around her at least, she had her two daughters and their families,
P: How did your mother's death specifically impact you?
S: Seven years old, eight years old, I really didn't know what was happening much.
She confided to me that this was the last time she was going to see me, and I
didn't know what that meant. I went to school and that was the last time I saw
P: What about your father at this point, because either he or your aunt made the
decision to put both of you boys in an orphanage.
S: Yes. My father couldn't make these decisions, he was totally helpless. So my
aunt, who was, once again, very outgoing and gregarious, knew lots of people in
Jamaica, and when she didn't know them, she was brash enough to go and
introduce herself. And she didn't know who to turn to, but right around the corner
was a Baptist church, from where our apartment house was, [it was] right next to
the library, and she went in there and spoke to the minister. And she said, I don't
know what to do with these young boys, and the father is no help, he's out of it,
do you have any suggestions? And he recommended this orphanage. It was not
a Baptist orphanage, I guess you could call it private, as much as they were
dependent on public donations.
P: Why wouldn't you have gone to live with your aunt and uncle?
S: They had two sons also, and once again, the uncle was not much for reality
either. Other then being a big help, he was more relegated to his room, they
didn't have room, he had his [one] room, his office, his bedroom, totally separate
from my aunt. Her lifestyle was a lot different. She probably would have taken
us if push came to shove, but I think it was asking for a whole lot.
P: When you went to the orphanage, what was your first impression?
S: Scared to death. I was just scared to death. It was ominous. There were a lot of
strange people, a lot of kids. [We] Went into the main door, through the main exit
and the first thing you see in the vestibule, right behind the vestibule, is the
chapel, [and] this huge, lit picture of Christ. And, you know, I'd never seen that
before. I said, oh my God, what's going on here? Who is this person? Does he
look after you if you've done something bad? Well, not him, but the
superintendent, who was a minister, Reverend Pop Potter [looked after us].
P: So this was not Baptist, but Protestant.
S: It was Protestant. Presbyterian.
P: Was the fact that your brother was with you a big help? He was a little older.
S: It was a tremendous help. He was my protector and someone I could hang onto
if I really had a problem. And they thought I would have a problem because I
was really kind of young, eight years old. The youngest people they took there
were probably six to seven to eight, somewhere like that. There were no
toddlers, there were no preschoolers, nothing like that. They were mostly young
boys and girls, up to eighteen, nineteen years old.
P: Did you feel a sense of abandonment?
S: I don't think so, because I was used to being in the boarding schools. I don't
think that was it. It was just a big change.
P: Talk a little bit about the conditions, and where you lived, and how many other
people were in this orphanage. Also talk a little bit about the schooling.
S: When we got there, I can remember the first thing was that one of the senior
boys, one of the older boys, showed us around, and it took about an hour, an
hour and a half, to walk the building facility itself. [The facility had] beautiful
grounds. [It was] up on a hill, they had wonderful grounds, right in the city of
Jamaica, about twenty minutes away from where my father was living, and my
aunt. So, it wasn't inconvenient.
P: So you could visit them and they could visit you.
P: So you still had this contact.
S: Yes. And we did, regularly, on weekends. We'd spend sometimes both nights,
sometimes just a Sunday. But all this time, I think my father was trying to find
work, find a position for himself, but for my brother and I, it was an experience to
be thrown in with 120 brothers and sisters.
P: So, it was female as well?
S: Oh yes. That led to some interesting stories that went on in there. [Laughter.]
P: But this is not Oliver Twist.
S: No, no, no. It was not all "hunky-dory," but we had enough food, we had enough
clothing. Nurturing, maybe, was a little light, but once again, what people would
work in circumstances like that?
P: Were you ever mistreated?
S: Not that I know of. Was I threatened? Oh, many times, yeah.
P: But that happens with kids in both private school and public school.
S: Absolutely. But by the staff itself, no. Mostly the staff, it's amazing, for the
limited amount of education they had, they were as nurturing as they could be for
that many people. That many kids.
P: And what kind of education did you get?
S: I transferred to the public school that was two blocks away from the home and
we went to P. S. 117 until the eighth grade, and when I graduated from grammar
school we went to high school.
P: In other words, you would go to the high school and then come back to the
orphanage at night.
S: That's right. That's absolutely right.
P: They didn't provide any educational activities?
S: No. Other than chapel. Every morning you had chapel and Sundays you had
P: Okay, so you graduated from grammar school. Then what?
S: [Then I] moved on to high school, and that was an experience because up until
the year prior we could have walked to our high school but they re-zoned the
entire area, and we had to walk for about half an hour and take an elevated train
for about twenty minutes, and then walk for another fifteen minutes, so it was an
experience to get to high school.
P: What high school?
S: Richmond Hill High School in Richmond Hill, Queens, but close to Brooklyn. I
didn't like the high school one bit.
P: Why not?
S: I didn't have a good experience there. It started in my sophomore year, my
second year in high school. I didn't know what I had, but it was a form of colitis
[Inflammation of the colon], and I was under tremendous pressure. It's virtually
embarrassing to leave the room to go to the bathroom. And it's not easy
because the teacher wouldn't always let you go, either.
P: Was that brought on by stress, do you think?
S: It must've [been]. I can't recall, I was always an easygoing, joking-around type
[of] person, but I noticed that I did have a stutter, a stammer, and I still do.
Occasionally, [I] grope for words, but it wasn't bad, it wasn't a real afflicted one,
but when I got excited I had trouble getting the words out.
P: What was the educational experience like at this high school?
S: It was your typical high school, where you could go either general or you could
go to the academic side, and I was always pointing that I was going to go on to
school, because that was expected.
P: Did you get encouragement from your father and your aunt, did they tell you they
wanted you to go on to university?
S: They being as learned as they [were], when we had time with them on weekends
they would always take us to some cultural or classical event, whether it was a
museum or an art movie or something, I mean there was always something that
was going on that was educational, and talking about classics.
P: So you got interested in art really at a very, very young age.
S: Yes. I didn't understand it and some of it I didn't like, you know, Rembrandt was
too dark, and some of the others [I liked], but, after a while, when you get
exposed enough to it, some of it does rub off.
P: When you finished your high school, were there any individuals in the high school
or in the orphanage that had a profound impact on your life?
S: Yes, yes. I have to say this, though. I learned at a very early age that money
was very important. [I] didn't have any. So, if you ever came across a quarter or
a dime, it could do things for you. And when I was in the orphanage, we would
have occasions to go down to the candy store, on our own, if you had money.
So actually, my father gave us an allowance, we may have had fifty cents or
something, and we learned to hoard that or to make sure that it lasted. My aunt's
sons had a business in Jamaica. They started an audio exchange business.
They were the first ones. I worked for them after school, after high school, [for]
maybe twenty hours a week, and had some money in my pocket. And I knew
that was important, and powerful.
P: And probably you had learned [the importance] of hard work and diligence.
S: And how to skirt it, and how to get around it, too. All of the gimmicks that young
kids sometimes have to learn.
P: What was your brother doing at this time?
S: He was also going through school, and he was in this other high school that he
could walk to, Jamaica High School, and when he finished there, he went on to
Queen's College. It was a city college, and he passed the entrance there and
went on to school there. He was three years older than me, but [I was] only two
years behind in school, because there's always that one year [I skipped].
P: Was it a problem, after having been with your brother so long, to go to different
S: It was more difficult when he left the orphanage, for two years I was there without
him. Of course, I was older then and could cope with it more, but in the
orphanage, they had it broken down in dorms, you had senior boys, junior boys,
senior girls, junior girls, and the younger boys, until you were of a certain age.
When a slot opened up in the senior dorm then you moved out [of the younger
boys' dorm]. You were with the big guys now, you were considered a big guy.
P: That was important.
S: When I first came to the orphanage, I was automatically in the senior dorm
because they didn't want to separate me [from my brother], they thought, you
know, that the war [scared me], and I may be afraid. I really wasn't. They said I
used to hide under the bed, I don't remember that. But anyway, that's what they
P: Was it a large dorm room?
S: It was one dorm room with cots. And you had lockers, and everybody slept in
there, and everybody heard everybody else's private things.
P: And what did your brother end up doing?
S: He was not accepted by them. He was more like my father. So, he had a very
hard time becoming accepted by the other boys. Whenever he could go out and
work and earn money, he was a pin boy at the bowling alley, [and a] grocery
delivery [boy], whatever he could do.
P: In the old days when they knocked the pins down somebody had to go back and
set them up. [laughing]
S: That's right. And you had to make sure you jumped out of the way when the ball
P: I've done that. [Laughter.]
S: Those pins were flying around.
P: That's a dangerous job if you're not out of the way.
S: He would tell me at the end of the round, when the people finished, they'd stick a
dollar or something in the hole of the ball and roll it down [to him], and that's
where you got your tips.
P: Now, he went on to Queen's, and what did he do after he graduated from
S: Well, he didn't graduate right away, he went into the service. After about one
year in college he went into the service, into the army, and he didn't have to
[fight]. It was during the Korean Crisis, but he was not at the front, he was here
stateside, [then he] went to Germany, spent some time in Germany. When he
came back, then he got the G.I. Bill, and he went back to Queen's. [He] finished
up there, went on to graduate work at Queen's, and then went on to the New
School of Social Research in the city, down in Soho. Not in Soho, in Greenwich
Village. And he has a Ph.D. in sociology and has been teaching at various
colleges and junior colleges.
P: Now, when you were, I presume, at a rather young age, there were two people
who had a great impact on your life. One was Chauncey Stillman, Tell me a little
bit about him, and how you met him, and what your relationship was.
S: When I was in the orphanage, one of our supervisors, [who] just happened to be
there at a later time, was this fellow named Clifford Connelly. [He was the] nicest
person you would want. [He was] really nice and concerned about the kids, [and]
spent his own money to take them out, [to] do whatever. Just the nicest person
you'd want to meet. When he was in the Navy during the war, he had met this
Chauncey Stillman and they had become friends. And this Chauncey Stillman is
a cousin, first cousin, of David Rockefeller. Mr. Stillman is dead now, passed
away, but he had a place [in] upstate New York, Wethersfield Farm. [The farm
had] thousands of acres, and he would have the boys come to a camp there.
The boys at Ottilie, that was the orphanage, Ottilie Orphanage Home, for a few
summers we spent a couple of weeks up there, they had a lake, we went
swimming, they had horses, [and] they had tents on wooden props so you
weren't on the ground.
I was into my reading stage and I had discovered some of the classic books and I
was reading The Three Musketeers, and all of the [Alexandre] Dumas books and
all of the Sabatini books, and all of the great swashbuckling books of the time.
Apparently, he noticed that rather than [being] out there and playing baseball, I
was taking whatever time I could to read. And Cliff Connelly introduced me to
Mr. Stillman, and said to Mr. Stillman, here's a person that you ought to consider
putting through school. And Mr. Stillman had done that in the past, but he wasn't
really into that mode [at the moment], but he wanted me to meet this lady who
was doing that. So, I was invited to his townhouse home in Manhattan for dinner.
P: How old were you at this point?
S: Probably sixteen [years old]. Yeah, fifteen or sixteen. And this lady was there
and she showed no interest at all in me. I was somewhat nervous because I
hadn't seen this much of a spread, and what spoons to use, and I just followed
everybody else's direction. Then they came with this bowl of roses in water, and
I didn't know whether to drink it but I figured out that you put your fingers in it.
Chauncey Stillman felt so bad that this woman had nothing to do [with me], he
said, I'm going to put you through. He always called me "old man." Where would
you like to go, "old man?" He had a very British type of [comportment] but he
was a full American. His father made his money, I think, in the railroad business.
And he was commodore of the New York Yacht Club. So he was up there with
the "mucky-mucks." But he said, where would you like to go to school, old man?
Princeton, Harvard, Yale? I said, I don't know. First, I need to find out who's
going to take me. So, while I was at the orphanage, there was another
supervisor there who was also a very nice person. [He was] Older, [had] just
gotten out of the service, and he was going to go to college. He was going to
Hofstra College. I got to talking to him, and liked him, and I went there, [I]
passed the entrance exam and got accepted. I said, I think I'll go with someone I
know. I roomed with him for the first year in a private house. They didn't have
P: Plus Hofstra was close by.
S: It was a commute, though. But we actually moved out there, and lived in a
private house, in a room, and walked to school. [We] didn't have vehicles in
P: And you would have started in 1956?
S: 1955. Summer of 1955.
P: And you majored, I believe, in engineering?
S: I started out with electrical engineering. And you couldn't get an [electrical
engineering] degree, you had to transfer after the second year to Brooklyn
Polytech. Well, my first course in basic electricity, I flunked. So, I knew that was
not something I could handle. So, I went a little sideways, where there was more
management, and accounting, and I enjoyed it very much.
P: Because Hofstra is a pretty much a liberal arts school.
S: It is.
P: It's a smaller school. How many students attended when you were there?
S: At that time there were 10,000. But it was considered a commuter college, and
very few people lived around the campus. So, I spent most of my time in a
private room or in a diner. There were a couple of great diners that were
P: What faculty member would have had an impact on your career or your values?
S: There were two. One was an English professor. His name was D. H. Lawrence.
Dan Lawrence. [Laughter.] I don't know if [his middle initial] was "H", but it was
Dan Lawrence. But he taught me to just keep at it. I always enjoyed reading,
and writing essays was nothing of a chore for me, I enjoyed that. I went to
college because I thought I could do everything. I went out for every team that
was there except the football team. I was very much into sports. And that's how
I was accepted at the orphanage, too; I was fairly good at what I did, and I was
accepted because I assimilated.
P: I'll bet during that time it was very important. If you were not into sports, you
really sort of were isolated, ignored, by the other kids.
S: And my brother and I were the only Jews in the place. There were lots of
Catholics, but mostly Protestants.
P: Again, any sense of anti-Semitism anywhere?
S: Yeah, but kid stuff mostly. Calling you names, things like that. I'd get into fights.
I'd beat them up, they'd beat me up. I mean, I could hold my own and they
sometimes got the better of me, but we still associate with some of the people
P: When did you change your name from Stefan Schey to ...
S: Well, my first name was changed almost immediately in England to Stephen, and
it was S-C-H-E-Y. When we came to America, I think the first year, my father
said, you know, we need to change our name, because our name is Schey
[pronounced 'shy'], and scheiss is a bad word, and I said to him, no shit, because
I knew what it was. [Laughter] So he said, we'll drop the "c" and we'll just make
it Shey. Funny anecdote: my father's first name was Oscar, and he always
would sign his name [0. Shey]. He eventually got work in Wall Street with one of
the bond houses, and he was an accountant, or he had accounts. People would
call and say, let me speak to Mr. O'Shey.
P: They thought he was Irish.
S: And he would pick up and say, was, with a German accent. [Laughter]
[End Side A1]
P: Now, when you were getting ready to graduate from Hofstra, what were your
S: I really didn't have many plans. I lived for the moment. I was very young, very
immature, not really that worldly, although I had a lot of experiences. I was not
really mature enough to really handle things like an eighteen, nineteen-year-old.
I was probably more fifteen years old at the age of eighteen, nineteen, or twenty.
But what I neglected to mention, was while I in the orphanage, there was
another very influential person in my life. He was not part of the orphanage
except that he came and wanted to take some boys out for a few weeks. His
name was Haskel Hess. He turned out to be not only a very dear, dear good
friend, he was more of a father figure than my father.
P: And how long did you have a relationship with him? Did it start when you were
early on in the orphanage?
S: Yes. I must've been ten, eleven, [or] twelve [years old], somewhere like that, and
it went on for three [or] four years and then we lost touch when I got older, and
[was] still in the orphanage, we lost touch. I was doing more things, I was
working more during the summers, earning money, and playing more ball. I had
many interests like that. But when I went to college at Hofstra, which was in
Hempstead, and still is in Hempstead, by the way, that hasn't changed. Haskel
Hess lived in Babylon, which was just further east on the island. Just by chance,
with my roommate who had a car, we drove out there and found him and
renewed acquaintances, and it was wonderful. He was just, he and his wife were
just so good to me, and really took care of me at times.
P: You would have had contact with him throughout the time you were at Hofstra.
S: Yes, from about the sophomore year on. Not the freshman year, but the second
P: And when you were there, did you make any reports, or turn in your grades to
S: Yes, every semester I had to send him my grades, and also my financial
requests, because he was not only paying my schooling, but my room and board.
And I remember [it was] $25 a week, that took care of room and board.
P: But you had to have an accounting of how you spent that money.
P: That's a good way to learn how to take care of money, isn't it?
S: Well, I knew what money was. I knew very much how two cents was important,
because we could get two cents on an empty Coke bottle. And five of those
could get us almost another Coke.
P: So, money was very important.
S: When did you meet Carol?
P: I met her when I was a senior in college. I had the distinction of being probably
one of the few seniors that pledged a fraternity. You usually do that in your
sophomore year, [or] freshman [year], but I was a senior. I said, I'm missing out
on something, I'm immature. I didn't have a car, I couldn't get around really,
other than public transportation. Even at Hofstra it was kind of difficult. I said, I
really need to join so I get to see some of the other side of life. I met Carol at a
fraternity dance. She was with another fraternity brother. And I knew when I saw
her, I said, that's the girl.
S: Yeah, instantly. I asked another fraternity brother, who was bringing her back
and forth to school from her home, [to introduce me]. He was her transportation.
And he introduced me to her. And I pestered her. Hounded her, pestered her.
P: Finally wore her down. [Laughter.]
S: And she brought me home to meet her parents, and they said, well, I'm glad it's
platonic, because we don't want you marrying anybody Jewish. [The idea was if]
it's a choice, if it's black or Jewish, well, we'll take the Jewish, you know. Her
parents were blue-collar people, but nice people.
P: And what was she doing at the time you met?
S: She was a freshman working on full scholarship. She was working at the college
after hours to help pay for her scholarship. She worked in the library, and I was
working at, there was a fraternity job that was part of the university that our
advisor passed down from fraternity brother to fraternity brother, and I was lucky
enough to get it, and [I was] making $50 a week.
P: That was good money.
S: That was good money in 1959-60. For after school. I mean, that was great. And
I ended up in the library, in the music room, listening to records. And her room
was next door, and we just courted a little bit then, and I took her out to the
Chinese restaurant in Hempstead for a couple of dollars and then took her to
New York and to the museums where you didn't have to pay to get in. I wasn't
cheap, I was just poor.
P: Well, that's the beauty of it. In those days, there was a lot of stuff that you could
do for free.
S: But somehow she took a liking to me, and that's how ...
P: So, you go married in 1961.
P: And I'm sure you remember the exact date, right?
S: Of course. [Laughter.] I remember the incident, the whole nine yards. I had to
shovel my car out of the snow twice that morning because I wanted to make sure
I could get to the church on time. I shoveled it out and the snow plow came and
buried it right back under.
P: Well, you were determined.
S: That's right. That wasn't going to hold me back.
P: Did she get to finish school?
S: Not at that time. She went there until we left for Texas, which was in 1961. Let's
see, we were married in 1961, I think, yeah.
P: You joined the army at some point.
S: I was in the ROTC, and as soon as I graduated, I graduated in January of 1960,
[by] February 4, I was in the service, and I had to go to Texas for basic training.
And then I came back and was stationed at Lido Beach, which is right next to
Hempstead, practically. She was still in school. We got married that following
January of 1961.
P: And you chose missile air defense? You were in Texas, you must have been in
S: That's right. You didn't really choose, they chose for you, but I had some
engineering, and they thought that would be all right.
P: Where did you finish up your military service?
S: Everything was stateside. I got to El Paso three different times.
P: Once you finish the military, you've got to go out and make a living.
S: That's right.
P: Now, what did you decide to do at this point?
S: I was due to be discharged in February of 1962, and somebody named
Khrushchev [Soviet Premier, 1958-1964] decided to build a wall in Berlin, and I
was extended for another four months, as it turned out. But I was due to be
separated, and I was anxiously waiting for that, with no idea what I was going to
do. But they told me, no, we were extended. [The] Captain said, [with a] big
smile, guess what, you're ours for a little longer. Finally, on July 3, I was
P: What year?
S: 1962 [I was there] another four months or so. But, then I had no idea what I was
going to do. I had some interviews lined up with New York Telephone, and
maybe the gas company. Just middle management, I thought I was going to be
P: But you knew you wanted to be in [the] management business?
S: Something to do with people, [just] manage people, and maybe some of the
engineering that I knew. I'm always good with numbers. I can do numbers
backwards and forwards. [I] brought my slide rule with me, we didn't have
calculators in those days. But, Haskell Hess asked me if I'd like to learn the
business. And I said, I've got nothing else, sure. So, the following Monday, I
was discharged on a Saturday, the Fourth of July was Sunday, I guess the
holiday was the Friday, but that Monday I showed up at his office for work, and
he paid me $100 a week. I had two kids and a wife. In 1962, that wasn't much
P: You made almost as much working at the fraternity house.
S: That's right, and having a better time at it. [Laughter.]
P: But you understood the benefit of learning the business from somebody like that,
so it was probably a good investment of your time.
S: It was perfect. He made sure that we didn't starve. He did this purposefully, but I
had some National Guard obligations. I had to serve another three years in the
National Guard, and that afforded me some money, not a whole lot, but $100 a
month or whatever, but it came in handy. And I went out at night and did some
odd selling jobs, trying to raise some money.
P: He owned apartment buildings and he built them, so you learned the business
from the bottom up?
S: Yes. He started me, he put me on a building I knew nothing about, and just said,
you're the gopher. You just do whatever they want you to do. So, I counted
broken windows one day and counted doors the next day, and made some calls.
Finally, [I] really progressed to where I knew the process. At that time I was the
third assistant to the third assistant. [Laughter.] But then he put me on a job by
myself with Italian workers who didn't speak English. And here I was, trying to
decipher plans with these Italians who knew how to lay brick and pour concrete,
but didn't know much about reading plans. They just did it because that's the
way it should be done. And I made a few mistakes, but there was always a
project manager that oversaw and corrected me when I made mistakes.
P: Would you have to go to him occasionally and say, well, look, I need advice on
S: Well, no, I was always too proud, I thought I knew it. But he came and said, you
made a mistake and we gotta rip that out. And he said, you dumbass, next time
you're gonna talk to me. I said, okay. Anyway, that's how I learned the
P: And eventually, you went into business with him, to build some homes?
S: He actually set me up with another partner, and he backed me with the finances.
And we were to build eight homes, expensive homes; these were very expensive
homes in the ritzy part of Jamaica. My partner, his father-in-law, owned the land,
so he threw in the land, and we started building houses. They weren't going very
well, we built two houses and sat for six months with them. Finally they sold and,
we built two more. It was a very slow process and Haskel thought we'd be out in
a year's time. So, this was about 1964, well, [in]1963 he put me in business with
this other gentleman, and in 1964 he had an opportunity, he had partners in
Miami, too, [he was] not only building in New York but in Miami, and one of his
partners had a son at the University of Florida who said to his dad, there's no
housing, you've got to come up here. So this fellow's dad came and tied up
three acres right next to the V. A. [Veteran's Administration] Hospital. And
Haskel got involved, and Haskel said to me, look, we've got this opportunity, this
is going so slow, let's see if we can't get out of it; let your partner have it and
maybe we can get you out.
P: This must be [the] Summit House [apartments].
S: It was. So, [he] didn't have to say [that I could leave] but once, and one day I
spoke to Carol and I said, we're leaving. [I've] never been to Gainesville, don't
know what it's about, no idea, but it's got to be better than this.
P: You thought that, perhaps, if he saw some promise, that he was an astute
enough businessman, you figured that it would be a good enough market for
you? At least, you had some hope, you weren't just coming on a blind guess,
S: Well, it was pretty much a blind guess, but certainly I took everything that he had
to say, and he said, I don't know how it's going to turn out because I don't know
Gainesville, but I'm going on what this other fellow says. And when we got here,
we couldn't finish them quick enough. They were rented before we finished
P: Did you have your own construction company or would you hire workers?
S: No, no.
P: You were just the management?
S: That's right. We were like the general contractor and everything was subbed out.
P: By the time you got here, you had a pretty good idea of the process and how to
S: Yes, but I was still a junior partner because the father of the son was the working
superintendent. And it was his job, and I was working under him. But I was a
true assistant, and signed contracts with his help, and he taught me a lot too, he
P: Well, obviously, that was a really good choice in terms of location.
S: No question. I mean, at that time it was the boondocks, there's nothing but
watermelon fields there, but the V. A. was going up, and we thought, gee,
Shands [Hospital] there, [and then the] V.A. You can't lose.
P: And Summit House is still going strong, so you must have built it [well].
S: It's still standing, it's a condominium now, and it's owned by different people, but
it still doesn't look too bad.
P: Well, now, what was your goal at this point? After you had set up Summit
S: My goal was to make $1,000,000. Money really drove me. [I was] very focused
P: At some point you did go to law school. You took time out to go to law school?
S: Yes. We built two more phases onto Summit House because we didn't own the
land at the time, and we just added more land to it. The fellow that was the real
superintendent went back to Miami to build, and I was up here, taking care of the
partnership. So I did the management as well as the construction. And in 1969,
there was a mini-recession, and we didn't have anything to do, and I was saying,
well, you know, I've got nothing to do here, and I'm not making any money other
then what we're doing in the apartment. I said, I've got the G.I. Bill, let me use it.
So, with the help of Roy Hunt and Selig Goldin, they got me into law school in
January of 1970, I think it was, and I stayed there for two semesters. [I] Enjoyed
it thoroughly. It was harder than I ever thought it was [going to be]. I couldn't
focus too much on that, I had a family, [I] had four kids then, no, three kids at that
P: But then the market turned around a little bit.
S: And in 1971 it came back, but it's funny, I was so busy when I was in law school,
I didn't think there was any business, but people wanted my services. I was a
general contractor for Barry Silverstein, who was at the law school, and I built La
Mancha apartments for him during that law school period. Lindsey Beckham, an
optometrist in town, built a sporting goods store and had the school of [building
construction] build it. And the school of [BCN] built it from two sides and when
they came together in the middle, it was like eight inches difference. So they had
to tear it out and do it over, and I was the advisor on that and finished that up for
them. I had all these projects going while I was in law school and I didn't have
time to study. I didn't do very well, but I enjoyed it thoroughly.
P: At this point, do you set up your own firm?
S: In 1966, when I was now left with Summit House on my own, I set up Shey
Associates, Inc., the corporation that was now managing [construction], and also,
I had a license, so I put the license in with the company.
P: So, in the next, let's say, thirty years, you built, I don't know, thousands of ...
S: Yeah, 3000 units, probably. In Gainesville.
P: Which apartments, and how did you decide where to build them, and did you
target some of them for students and some for professionals?
S: For the first twenty-eight, well, let's see, for the first... 1965 to, let's say, 1995,
maybe even 2000, I targeted 100 percent for the students. I love the student
market. They were the best clients to have. We tried to do things innovative so
that we could keep them interested.
P: So, would Town & Country be one?
S: Well, all of the "Country," we had Country Gardens, Country Village, Country
Manor, the Gardens. I mean, we just did everything we could that was geared
for the students. We'd take non-students, and we had many of them living [in our
apartments], we had a history professor living at Summit House. Davis.
P: Hunt Davis?
S: Hunt Davis. When he first came, yes.
P: When you build these apartments, you build them for students, so do you have
sort of a set design for all of them that you know that works?
P: And you've got to have a pool, you've got to have a tennis court, you've got to
have the ..
S: All of the usual amenities, and you don't build the best of quality, because you
know the students don't require it, don't need it, don't want to pay for it, [and] the
parents don't want to pay for it. They want just basic needs taken care of, and
they want to pay as little as possible.
P: Were you in this for the rental, or was this an investment so that you could get
them started and sell them?
S: We went strictly for the ownership. We were long-term owners. Our modus
operandi was to keep them for a long time. And I'd say after about twenty years,
Summit House started to show some deterioration, and the profit level was not as
good as it used to have been, although the location was superb, we were given
an offer we couldn't refuse by converters. Condo converters came and said,
we'll give you three and a half million dollars for them.
P: You said, where do I sign.
S: Yeah, I mean, it only cost us a million and three to do the whole 180 units, and
we had paid down the mortgage somewhat. We said, that's a no-brainer. Of
course it's for sale.
P: Now, obviously, one of the difficult jobs is maintenance on these units, and not
just repainting, but just day-to-day maintenance, plumbing and that sort of thing.
Would you hire your crews to do all of them, or would they be set in one place?
S: Each project, each property had its own in-house group. Manager, resident
manager, assistant manager, maintenance chief, maybe a couple of janitorial
people. Some lived on-site, some didn't, but they had their own group, because
each partnership had different partners in it.
P: I see, so you had different partners for many of these groups.
S: Or different percentages, we may have had the same partner but different
percentages. Every year that I got involved, I got more of a piece of it.
P: Did you own many of them outright?
S:  didn't want to. Haskel was always an equal partner wherever I went. He
owned as much as I did, if he wanted it. There came a time when he said, no,
this is yours, you do it.
P: Obviously, you have to have your [building] maintenance, pool maintenance, and
all that sort of thing. Did you hire people for that?
S: Yeah, that was all contracted out. That part, there was a time that we did our
own work, but we felt that, rather than have all of the equipment, which was just a
pain in the neck, it was always disappearing or breaking down, let's hire
somebody who does nothing but that. So we flipped over from doing all the work
to doing part of the work.
P: And plus, you would [have], over a period of time, figured out who would be good
painters, and who would be good lawn maintenance. In other words, you had
developed enough apartments that you were able to get good quality
maintenance people to look after these apartments.
S: Well, you always hoped that you did. You know, good quality, that's an
oxymoron, I don't think that ever exists, but we were able to discern good from
P: But that would be one of your most difficult responsibilities, is making sure that
they were managing the property correctly.
S: That wasn't as much of a challenge as the actual, physical management of the
tenants. The tenant problems were more of an issue than the maintenance.
P: And did you have to deal with that?
S: Many times. Many times.
P: So, with the students, you must have had a one-year contract.
S: Most of the students, when we started, they didn't have such a thing as a one-
P: It was nine months.
S: It was nine months, but I was the first one that instituted the parental guarantee.
I said, we want a year's lease, and we want the parents to guarantee it. Since
we did that, we never had an issue of uncollectible rents and things like that.
P: Plus, you allowed sublets?
S: Yes. Oh, yes.
P: Because a lot of kids would be gone [for the summer].
S: Sure. But they were still responsible. On a sublet, the original tenant is still
liable. We always dealt with the on-campus housing department, and we had a
reputation that we were firm, but fair.
P: What about the security issue? Not as great in the beginning as it would come to
S: That's right. There was never an issue until the Gainesville murders [five
students murdered by Danny Rollings in 1990]. And boy, did that change
P: Did that occur at one of your properties?
S: No. Fortunately not. A couple of years later we did have a murder. I was in
Vermont on vacation, and they called me and they said, we had a murder. And I
said, oh God, not again. He was on the loose at first, but they caught him within
a couple of hours.
P: The personnel problems, and the contracts making sure that they got their rent
paid, and there was always probably some conflict between roommates or
S: And there is today. [Laughter.] That never changes.
P: What's the hardest part of building and managing apartments?
S: I think today it's a challenge because you don't have the same quality that you
had in those days.
P: Quality meaning, tenants?
S: No, the building, of the construction. So you're paying more and getting less.
P: Have the tenants changed much over the years?
S: Yes, they're a lot more educated. They're much smarter than they used to be.
They ask the right questions, they're better educated, they have more of a
background, their parents give them some information before they come. It's not
just blanket approval.
P: Yeah, just walking in. What was the last unit you built?
S: We built a project called Asbury Park, that is non-student. And it's 100 percent
occupied right now.
P: When did you build that?
S: We built that two years ago.
P: So, now you got to have all the high-tech stuff, right? You've got to have your
cable, you've got to have ...
S: That's right. We've got security alarms, we've got everything in there for internet,
and ethernet, and all of the goodies. It's a different business. But then again, the
rents go up and everything. It's a regular business.
P: The rental market in this city has always been pretty good. As far as I know it
really hasn't been overbuilt very often, has it.
S: Not very often, and I think those that have the better location will always be better
P: Is there room for new developments?
S: There's always room for new. There's always room for new, because it just
pushes out the old.
P: What happens when apartments get older? Like Summit House, for example, is
twenty years old. Do you completely refurbish them?
S: You can do one of two or three things. One is you can sell, and now it's not an
A-class property, it's a C-class property, so your rents are pegged on a C-class
property. So, you get a different element of renter. And you either band-aid it if
you look to maximize your profits, or you just take care of it like you should to
keep it for as long as you can.
P: You also did some building in Crescent Beach.
S: [I] did some condominiums in Crescent Beach in the mid-1970s.
P: Why did you decide to go that way instead of Gainesville apartments?
S: It was just something different. There was an opportunity, and I thought we could
do quite well.
P: In your business dealings [at the present time], have you sold most of your
S: Yes, we have. We have two properties left, and we're trying to actively sell
P: So where do you devote most of your time now?
S: Investments. Art and investments. [Laughter.] Art is an investment but it isn't one
that's going to throw any financial pleasure to us.
P: So, do you buy property?
S: We buy properties, and we hold them and then we sell them. We may even
develop to the extent where we'll put in the infrastructure and then sell it. We
purchase mortgages, we make mortgages. First mortgages.
P: When did you start that?
S: When I sold out most of the properties, when I had a little pile of cash. And, as
you know, the last three, [or] four years, two percent interest is not that great out
P: Not too good, no.
S: So, rather then put it in with the banks, we decided to try to get twelve percent
P: I would assume that investment in land is always going to be a good investment.
S: I think that you're right. It's been a boom right now, and it may still be a boom for
a little while, but I think that you're going to see some slowing down in the next
P: Explain how you got specifically interested not so much in art, but in the
purchasing of art.
S: We were coerced into it by our friend Budd Bishop. We went on a number of
trips with him and the Harn Museum: San Francisco, Santa Fe, New Mexico,
Italy; and [we] had seen beautiful works of art [in] private homes.
P: There must be more art galleries in Santa Fe than in any other town that size in
S: You're absolutely right. And it covers the whole gamut.
P: But you had already been interested in art, in terms of going to museums?
S: We had always been interested in art. And we had purchased stuff, like the
Remington [Frederic, American painter and sculptor, 1861-1909] there, we
thought, hey, that was great art. You know, $600, $1200, that was as far as we
wanted to go. And we weren't prepared to spend any big kind of money. But
when Budd Bishop came on the picture, our first venture was to Santa Fe, and
we saw some things we liked, and we probably spent about $30,000 there. And
that was a lot of money for us to spend at that time. That was a lot of money.
P: And what year would this be?
S: It had to be 1989, 1990, somewhere around there.
P: So, it's really been the last fifteen years that you've been an active collector?
S: Not even through twelve years, probably. But that was a lot of money. But we
got a lot of bang for our buck. And it was nice, it was not the best of art, but it
was wonderful, great colors and unknown artists. But there were a few that were
P: And the thing I noticed, just for the record, you showed me around your art
collection and one of the things I've noticed, is that most of them are American
artists. And would you explain why you were particularly interested in American
artists and abstract artists. You have Motherwell [Robert, American abstract
expressionist painter, 1915-1991], and we won't get into all of the paintings, but
why did you focus on that particular area?
S: Well, most important was the economics. We've always, both Carol and I, have
loved the French Impressionists, and even prior to that we tried to purchase one
from the Barbizon School, a Courbet, [Gustave, French realist painter, 1819-
1877] that was available.
P: Courbet, the French landscape painter?
S: Yeah. Gustave Courbet was in the Barbizon School with Corot [Jean-Baptiste-
Camille, French realist painter, 1796-1875] and others. But we saw this painting
in Montreal. It was a lot of money but I tried to negotiate with him, and he
wouldn't come down, so we didn't get it. And I've always been a negotiator and I
always will be, and if the people don't like it, they'll tell me. And I can accept no
as an answer. I don't have to have something if I can't afford it, I'll walk away
from it. But as to the first real major step in art, I think probably San Francisco,
where we bought three or four things at one time, and that was a major step up.
P: So, obviously you prefer buying from well-recognized galleries as opposed to
going to Sotheby's or Christie's and auction-houses.
S: Right. We have been successful. We have bought a few pieces at Christie's, the
Jamie Wyeth [American contemporary realist painter, b. 1946] we got at
Christie's on auction, and there were a few others that we bought, there was a
John Singer Sargent [American painter, 1856-1925] that we got on auction. It
was a lesser piece, but we've since given it back to Christie's and they've sold it
at three times what we paid for it. So, that wasn't a bad investment.
P: And you also have a very strong interest in sculpture. Did that start after your
interest in paintings?
S: Yes, it did, because of the space, and being on this beautiful site, 650 acres, we
have room outside for sculpture. And we've always been interested in all media
of art, really, and sculpture is just a natural progression of paintings.
P: And in the house, and I should [note] for the record that the house is, essentially,
S: That's what it was built for.
P: And you have quite a display of both your paintings and the sculpture. Describe
a little bit more about some of the favorite pieces you have, and exactly what kind
of artist you try to purchase.
S: Well, we have been relegated to the American genre because they are, once
again, in supply and affordable, and you can still make a reasonable bargain on
the American. But do I have a favorite? Everybody asks me, what is your
favorite painting, and I tell them, the next one. That's my favorite, the next one.
We're constantly looking, we're always hoping to upgrade what we have, but
eventually, this will go to the Ham Museum.
P: And you have a lot of Motherwells.
S: Motherwells, and Motherwell's ex-wife Frankenthaler, [Helen, American abstract
expressionist painter, b. 1928] we have three of her pieces, and Joan Mitchell
[American abstract expressionist painter, 1926-1992], we've got three or four of
P: Do you have a Stella?
S: Both Stellas, Frank and Joseph.
P: Joseph Stella [Italian/American painter, 1877-1946].
S: Our earliest piece is Alden Weir, and the latest piece probably is the Souver,
P: Plus you've got an interesting collection of Precisionists.
S: That's right.
P: Which is sort of an interesting genre of painting that most people wouldn't know
S: Well, there are various schools throughout history, there are schools of painters
who have gotten together and paint in a like fashion, and have been known, like
the Hudson Valley painters. I think in Florida, weren't there the Night Riders or
something, a group of black painters who painted a lot together? One of the
schools has been the Precisionist school, a number of artists who painted
together, not exclusively in this school, but they're more architecturally-designed
paintings where they have straight lines, buildings, silos, trains, elevated trains,
but mostly things that are more architecturally-designed. And that's the
Precisionist school. But we don't just gravitate to that school.
P: You have a Thomas Hart Benton [American Regionalist painter, 1889-1975], you
have a Childe Hassam [American Impressionist painter, 1859-1935].
S: We have an eclectic collection.
P: That's it. And the thing that intrigues me about talking to both you and Carol is
that the house is [in] muted colors, and it's not at all decorative. It's really
designed to show the art, and that's really what you enjoy about your collection.
S: When we decided to build the house, we contacted a local architect named Billy
Brame who doesn't really do houses, he mostly does offices and commercial
ventures but he has done three or four houses. We said, we really like Frank
Lloyd Wright as a style, but we don't want it to be conspicuous. [We want] the
prairie-style home so that it blends in with the landscape. And that's what we
like, and I think that's the style.
P: And the front does look like one of his prairie homes to some degree, doesn't it.
S: It does. Of course, we're on the side of the hill, so you can't get the same effect
from the back of the house. It's a monster. Someone said, looks like a Holiday
Inn. I said, no, I think it's a little better than the Holiday Inn.
P: Of course it's better. How many square feet in the house?
S: 12,000 square feet.
P: You have about, I would say you told me 120 pieces [of art], or something like
S: About 120 pieces of art, both sculpture and painting.
P: And you were gracious enough to allow the Ham to show your paintings and
S: They can borrow them any time they want.
P: And there will be, at some point, a traveling exhibition.
S: We're talking about in two years time, letting them have most of the collection
and show it at the Harn and then travel to maybe three or four other museums.
P: Which will benefit the Harn, because they can, charge for that exhibition.
S: Yes, they can.
P: So, your next goal in terms of acquisitions, do you have anything specific in
S: Yes, we've told our favorite galleries to be on the lookout for a Motherwell Elegy.
That's a specific period that Motherwell painted, and they're extremely
interesting works of art. And eminently recognizable.
P: And you have a lot of abstract art: you have de Kooning, [Willem,
Dutch/American abstract expressionist painter, 1904-1997] you have an Avery
[Milton, American painter, 1893-1965]. You really have a broad base of different
types of more modern than traditional, right?
S: Yes, it is. It is more of a surrealistic, expressionistic, modern. It isn't by any
P: And Budd Bishop has been your art advisor through ...
S: It is his collection, and we're just the caretakers of his collection. [Laughter.] All
we did is pay for it. I introduce him, I say, this is Budd Bishop's collection. We
were only involved in the financial arrangement, that's all.
P: Now, the question always comes to people who are, "art collectors." Do you do
this for an investment or do you do it because you enjoy it?
S: It's a love. If we did it for investment, I'd starve to death.
P: Because you wouldn't sell any.
S: Because we'd keep everything. The only time that we sell is if we can upgrade,
and if we can use those funds to get something else, and we sometimes barter
P: But clearly, your collection, should you choose to sell some of these, you could
make a fairly good profit. We were talking earlier about how an early Picasso
just went for $104 million, and it wasn't a particularly good Picasso. So, in the art
world, obviously, there's a limited number of paintings available? I mean, most of
the art is in museums or privately held.
S: Yeah, I think if our appraisal is of any value, if it means anything, we had an
appraisal done two years ago by Christie's. We've probably doubled our value, if
we had to. But that doesn't mean anything to us. That's not important to us.
P: Would you care to put a figure on that?
S: $16 million, probably, is what it's worth.
P: And you plan to continue collecting at a fairly reasonable pace?
S: No, no, I think we're gonna be very selective, and probably just do one or two
pieces per year, if the money still holds out.
P: I was going to say, you'd have to open a new museum if you got much more.
S: Well, we're planning on some changes here. We may convert our garage into a
gallery and add another garage in front of that. We've got Billy Brame working
on some plans right now. Oh gosh. [Laughter.] I don't really want to talk about
that, I don't want to think about that at this point.
P: One of the paintings I liked a lot in my tour was Alex Katz's Moonlight, which is
lovely and some of the paintings you have are just huge, and they're beautifully
mounted and presented, and that's a lot of the enjoyment of it, is to be able to
walk around your house and see this great art.
S: It doesn't do any good if it's in the closet.
P: Well, a lot of people don't put it up.
S: I know. I know.
P: You have a climate-controlled environment and obviously light-controlled. You
are very careful, and you've got good outside lighting as well, so it's really an
extraordinarily beautiful house, and it's a joy to walk around and see the art, and I
know you enjoy it every day.
S: We do.
P: Is there anything, Steve, that we have not talked about, either in your current
interests or in your past that we should talk about?
S: No, but I think that you, as a historian, could probably write a nice novel, it would
be fiction, but a nice novel, on my years in Ottlie Home. [I had] a lot of
experiences there that were very interesting.
P: It certainly makes you appreciate what you have now perhaps all the more.
S: I was driven, I think, because of my experiences.
P: And to some degree, I don't want to go into pop psychology, but the fact that your
father didn't fare too well gave you some incentive, I would presume, to
demonstrate that you could do well in business and make a good living.
S: I think so. He was an intellect, and I think my brother has tried to emulate him
from that side. And I felt that, well, what was left to me was just to be a good ol'
American "assimilator." Do everything, maybe not well, but know how to do
P: Well, I know from personal knowledge that you have a strong interest in the
Performing Arts Center and you support them. What other areas do you
S: The Natural History Museum. Arts and medicine. And then in medicine, we're
P: And I know you enjoy classical music.
S: Very much so.
P: And that is an option we didn't have many years ago in this city, and that's one of
the better things that's happened to Gainesville since I've been here.
S: Well, I see you there all the time.
P: I wouldn't miss it.
S: You know when I was in high school, one of my real strong points was American
history. I loved it. I knew the dates of everything, and I knew what happened, I
memorized, because I was really into it. I really enjoyed American history. And
now I'm going back and starting to read some of the nonfiction work that's out
there, John Adams [Biography written by David McCollough, 2001].
P: That's a great biography.
S: It is, it is a wonderful book. I still enjoy reading. I don't have enough time to do it.
I'm trying to relearn the piano, because I love the piano, I've always loved it. The
trouble with my life is that I liked everything, but I didn't really specialize in one
thing that you could say, he's really good at that. I'm not. I'm passable at most
things. I can play a decent game of chess. I may play some bridge. But I'm not
good at it. And that's my life. I'm well-rounded.
P: It's better to be a Renaissance man than to just be proficient in one area.
S: I've always wanted to be the best, but I've realized I can't.
P: Very few can. That's why they're the best. Anything else you'd like to comment
on? Talk a little bit about your family. I know you have four daughters and one
S: That is correct. Daughter number one, Lisa. [She was] born nine months to the
day after we were married. Sweetest young lady that you could ever want. [She]
will give you the shirt off her back. Maybe not the smartest knife in the kitchen,
or the sharpest knife in the kitchen, I guess they say, but what she intends to do,
her intentions are the best. And she may not have the capabilities of her other
sisters, as far as the intellect, but she's the hardest worker out there, and in true
fashion, and is the only one that has really held a job other then working for our
P: Did they all work for your company at one time?
S: At one time or another, they have been [and still are]. Actually, Susan, she's the
nurse, she's worked in [many] nursing capacities, which we don't take care of,
but Susan's not happy in what she's doing. But she'll overcome that. She's
daughter number three. Laura's number two, who's probably the most capable
of all the daughters. She came a year and a half after Lisa. She was our, quote,
"son," and maybe that was a stigma that she shouldn't have had, she should
have just been tomboy and then a girl, but she was capable of doing anything
she wanted to do. As a result, she didn't do much in school. She graduated
from [the] University of Florida, and went to Florida on a scholarship, [a] track
scholarship, but she's eminently capable of doing that and a thousand things
P: And what is she doing now?
S: She runs our company. She's the president of Shey Associates. And she signs
everything. She's responsible.
P: And Lisa?
S: Lisa works for the company, but she does more [of] the menial-type things, the
everyday things that you have to do to make sure that an office runs.
P: And then Susan?
S: Susan is our nurse, who has a double degree: journalism from the University of
Florida, [and] nursing from Florida State [University], and has been in the medical
profession for the last ten years or so. And not completely happy.
P: She lives here as well?
S: She's living in Gainesville. She's four years younger than Laura, and she's
P: And Kara is the ...
S: Kara is the baby, but she's the only one that's married, presently, and her
husband loves her so much that he took her name. So, we have a grandson that
carries on the Shey name.
P: Great. And you might want to make at least one comment about your grandson.
I got to meet him very briefly.
S: Of course, well, Avery Myles Shey, son of Kara and Brian Shey. They're out
there, trying to make a living, Kara works part-time for our company, and other
times she's a mom. And Brian is in insurance and financial planning and running
a business that we own part of, that we invested in, and he's just hustling and
keeping busy. But all of our kids, I'd like at least to say this, that I feel bad for
them because they've felt that they've always had to impress us and do good,
and [they] want our approval. And they all have our approval. [Approval from me
is] not always easy, I'm not the easiest person to give approval, but they have
our approval and our love and I wish that they didn't have the stigma that they
always have to please us, and just please themselves once in a while.
P: It is interesting that they all ended up working in the business.
S: Right. I'm not sure how happy they are about that, but as our business dwindles
and we go in another direction, this may open up some avenues for them to
explore, and give them the financial wherewithal where they can do things on
their own and look for other things to do that may give them great pleasure.
P: Are any of them interested in art and music?
S: I think that, on the periphery, that most of them are interested, but not to the point
that they want to be tied down with it, a collection. [Laughter.] It's a
responsibility, and I think that the younger people today are somewhat lacking in
carrying on a responsibility and wanting to tie themselves down.
P: That may come with time, because they're still young.
S: It certainly may. How Carol and I have set up our future, at least when we're not
here, is I hope that they will become involved, and we'll give them every
opportunity to be involved in what happens. We have a foundation that we've set
up, and they can be as active as they want in the foundation, and be
compensated for their time while running this foundation. It will be substantial
enough that there will be a lot of decisions to make and a lot of people to make
happy. That's always nice.
P: On that note, we'll end. Thank you.
[End side B3]