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Published in The Providence Journal from Sept. 24 to Sept. 25, 2016
September 22, 2016
In 1997, Shelton received the John F. Kiffney community service award, which the Providence Newspaper Guild presents each year to those "whose caring, courage and humor light the way for those who follow."
"Henry Shelton has kept alive an agenda for social and spiritual justice in an era of indifference, selfishness and cold-heartedness," the Guild stated in 1997. "No Rhode Islander, in the closing decades of the 20th Century, has come more to symbolize the fight for the common woman and man, the dispossessed, the weak, the poor. No one has held more tenaciously to the tenets that used to be the foundation of the American Dream. No one stands more for Rhode Island's optimistic state motto: Hope."
The Guild cited Shelton's attempts to "lower the phone bills of the elderly, to make sure the paper carriers are fairly treated, to keep gas and electricity flowing to the stoves and furnaces of the poor during New England winters, to make sure that kids have clothes on the first day of school."
And while he received the award nearly two decades ago, his focus on income inequality and homelessness remains as timely as ever. "Shelton now thinks the greatest injustice in American society is the gap between the paychecks of the lowest-paid workers and the mountainous salaries, bonus-stock-option-retirement-severance plans of executives, the gulf between the haves and have-nots," the Guild wrote.
In 2006, I watched Shelton roll up to National Grid's local headquarters in a dented Ford Taurus. "Shelton unlocked the trunk of his car and pulled out a pile of placards, which all gave the gas and electricity company various degrees of hell for shutting off power to custumers behind on their bills," I wrote, describing him as "rumpled, resolute and relentless."
Shelton was born in 1930 to an Irish-American working-class family in Central Falls. After graduating from St. Raphael Academy, he went into the priesthood, influenced by two uncles who were priests. "Shelton's activism found an unusual ally in the Most Rev. Russell J. McVinney, bishop of Providence," the Guild wrote. "Outwardly conservative, McVinney liked Shelton's idea for setting up an inner-city apostolate and assigned Shelton to run it out of St. Michael's Church in South Providence."
In 1972, Shelton left Rhode Island and the Catholic priesthood for Washington, D.C., where he married Carol Reagan, formerly a Sister of Mercy who had worked with Shelton on social-justice activities. They would go on to have five children and six grandchildren.
Shelton returned to Rhode Island a year later and ended up launching groups such as the Coalition for Consumer Justice, the George Wiley Center and its Campaign to Eliminate Childhood Poverty.
Robert McConnell, a Wiley Center board member, said, "Henry's goal in life was to organize and stick up for the less privileged in our society."
Whether fighting for school breakfast or against utility shutoffs, Shelton was trying to "balance the playing field," McConnell said. "He was a fighter. He was a tough guy. Countless people who grew up in Rhode Island benefited from Henry's tireless efforts and don't realize he was a driving force behind those societal changes."
McConnell, who has known Shelton for 25 years through St. Michael the Archangel Church, said, "He really is the living embodiment of the best of the Catholic Church, the real message of the Catholic Church — 'love your neighbor as yourself,' 'Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.'"
Maggi Rogers, a Wiley Center board member, summed up Shelton succinctly: "He loves people and he hates injustice."
She said his retirement party invitations offered various levels of Wiley Center sponsorship, including "Troublemaker," "Co-conspirator" and "Please don't list my name in the program because Henry has picketed my house or place of business."
Rogers said that as a lifelong organizer, Shelton would want the focus to be on what needs to happen next — such as a plan to allow low-income customers to pay a set percentage of their income for utilities.
On Friday, as the morning sun filled his room, Shelton closed his eyes, resting, as his wife pulled out an essay by one of their grandsons.
Benjamin Shelton, an 11-year-old who lives in Virginia, wrote about three things he would do if he could: He would be a pro soccer player. He would travel the world. And, he wrote, "I would end childhood poverty because my grandpa did so much to help children in Rhode Island — and I want to be like him."