‘Hot-rodding’ 93-year-old paying back good fortune in Smartsville
Special to The Union
This 93-year-old Smartsville man simply doesn’t know how to slow down.
Once a week, Walter Shackelford climbs onto his riding lawn mower with his trusty walking stick and weed eater, and makes the quarter-mile trek downhill into town.
“He is an inspiration to us all,” said friend Brian Bisnett of Grass Valley.
For more than two years, Shackelford has been mowing the lawns at the former Catholic Church of Immaculate Conception, built in 1871, and the smaller, newer Smartsville Community Church down the street.
“I’m trying to make up for all my good fortune and pay it back,” Shackelford said.
The retired Air Force colonel takes pride in how quickly he can mow the lawn surrounding the large white historic Gold Rush-era church, which has been closed for decades and is undergoing a slow restoration.
“I was hot-rodding that thing,” Shackelford said with a laugh after mowing the lawn earlier this spring.
Kit Burton, president of the Smartsville Church Restoration Fund Inc., is appreciative of the work Shackelford does.
“He definitely is an asset to the community,” said Burton, of Smartsville. “I think he has lived the life of his dreams.”
Shackelford spent 25 years in the Air Force, flying aircraft including the Martin B-10 bomber, the KB-29 air refueler and the B-52 bomber.
He bought 20 acres he now calls home in the early 1960s for $2,500 but didn’t move to Smartsville until he finished building his home in 1985.
“I just love my 20 acres. There is nothing more wonderful to own than California land,” the Arkansas native said.
“When I came here, the town was …” Shackelford said with a long pause, “pretty much like it is now.”
It is a sleepy town of fewer than 200 people in the foothills of the Sierra mountain range about 14 miles west of Grass Valley off Highway 20.
For seven years in the late 1970s and early 1980s while he was building his house, Shackelford spent hours voluntarily weed-whacking tall grass around the dilapidated historic church that had been closed for years.
“I kept it from being a fire hazard,” he said. “Back in those days, I was so strong. I never got tired.”
Following his retirement from the Air Force in 1963, Shackelford worked as a charter pilot and flight instructor for Comet Airways at the Yuba County Airport.
He spent the next four years teaching students, including Beale airmen, how to fly before becoming a company pilot for the Yuba River Lumber Co. for the next 28 years.
The aircraft he liked best was the Cessna 182.
“Oh, it was fun,” Shackelford said.
He enjoyed flying the Cessna to many ranches for the lumber company and appreciated how it could take off and land on short runways.
“It could carry four people and all their baggage and still had a lot of power,” he said. “It was a lot less tension and stress than flying a military airplane.”
Cruising around the church lawns is stress-free, and Shackelford has no plans to stop. He said it keeps his mind and his body active, and that is what he wants.
“If I wasn’t going to be cremated, I’d want to get in on digging the hole to put me in,” Shackelford said with a laugh.
Bitton is a staff writer at the Marysville Appeal-Democrat.
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