A ‘soaring’ celebration for the life of Shirley Froyd

Eric Alan facilitated the night’s celebration of life honoring his mother, Shirley Froyd, at Opal Center last Friday.

Opal Center for Arts and Education hosted a retrospective art show and celebration of life for Shirley B. Froyd on Friday (May 27) to a packed house of friends, family and those touched by her memory.

Froyd’s son Eric Alan facilitated the night’s memorial, regaling the audience with a brief account of his mother’s life and sharing slides of her various accomplishments and exploits.

“I cannot fathom having a better mother,” he said. “Not only in what she accomplished, but how she accomplished it with gentleness, kindness, compassion and equanimity. She was a remarkable soul.”

A selection of Froyd’s art decorated Opal Center’s walls for the night, displaying her range of watercolor mastery.

Born Shirley Ann Blocki in Chicago on June 6, 1926, Froyd passed away on May 12, 2020, due to natural causes. However, due to pandemic concerns, a memorial had not been held until last week.

Though the ceremony was delayed, Friday’s service coincides with an upcoming Opal Center art program for children developed in Froyd’s honor, titled “The Art of Soaring”. Following Froyd’s passing, her family donated her vast collection of art materials to the center, which will aid in making program a reality.

“I wanted different teachers to be there to teach all different types of art and lay down the foundation for becoming an artist,” said local artist Paula Goodbar, who is drawing on Froyd’s memory as an inspiration to develop the program. “We’re going to have teachers that understand that spirit that she had. She was such a creative explorer. Woodworking, leather work, stained glass, water, acrylics, collage that’s just some of the creative work that she did.

“She inspired me in so many ways. I wanted to dedicate a program in her memory, and with The Art of Soaring, kids can learn about that spirit and the freedom of creativity the place where you can go, no matter what’s going on in the world, you can turn to your art and express yourself. It’s your safe place. Your sanctuary. And that’s what I want to help give our community and the kids that are here.”

Attendees that night also took turns to share stories and memories of Froyd. Friends and family described her in terms of her warmth, intelligence, artistic creativity, love for life and dedication to being a mother and grandmother.

Froyd’s diverse passions and zeal for life added up to a legacy spanning across multiple disciplines, earning her a reputation not only as a local artistic icon, but a steward of nature conservation, an avid “do-it-yourselfer” and even an aviation pioneer.

Her list of accomplishments started earlier than most in 1928 in Chicago she was the winner of the Perfect Baby Competition. But, a child of the Great Depression, she also learned to surmount challenges early in life as she lost her mother to leukemia at only age five.

Aviation became a part of Froyd’s life early on. Straight of high school, in 1944, she set herself on a path to become a pilot by applying to the first aviation program for women at Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri.

Two years later, at age 20, she had graduated, winning the Aeronca award for top pilot in her class.

She went on to join the Ninety-Nines, an organization of professional female pilots which was in part founded by famed pilot Amelia Earhart in 1929. Though the group had grown in membership by the time Froyd joined in 1946, the organization takes its name from the 99 women who initially answered Earhart’s call to organize.

By 1952, Froyd had earned many additional flight ratings, including for aerobatics, multi-engine planes, instruments and seaplanes. Most notably, she also won the All-Woman Transcontinental Air Race (also known as the Powder Puff Derby) as a 26-year-old rookie and went on to participate in the race for several years, always finishing highly. Her distinguished career earned her flight instructor positions at several colleges for years to come.

During her career, Froyd also managed to get a master’s degree in art to accompany her master’s in aviation while raising three children.

At 51 years old, when her youngest child went off to college, she finally put aviation instruction behind her and moved to Cottage Grove where she became one of the first six people to embark on a bold project, forming a community called Cerro Gordo.

The cooperative effort sought to establish a communal ecovillage on a 1,200-acre plot of land on the north side of Dorena Lake.

Over six years, she worked with others to build her new home, a log house on a hill where she also established what would be her art studio, in which some 700 watercolor pieces would be created.

Froyd moved onto the land in 1978, but, in a testament to her commitment to a natural lifestyle, it would be years before electricity and running water were put in place.

Though Cerro Gordo did not accomplish its initial goals, Froyd loved nature and years later participated in Cerro Gordo’s shift to a focus on land conservation, a project which succeeded in preserving 1,000 acres of land on the north shore of Dorena Lake via two conservation easements.

Her love for nature was expressed, too, in her commitment to volunteer work on Mt. Pisgah where she was a member of the Monday Morning Regulars doing trail and land maintenance.

On top of that, she was a central member of the outdoors group the Obsidians, leading roughly 70 hiking and biking trips.

Froyd’s love for art radiated into the Cottage Grove community and she was well-known as a masterful watercolor painter. Her work was widely displayed in many galleries, shows and venues.

Her art even found more permanent space in several spots around town, fingerprints of her work scattered across various places of note. A diorama of the Cottage Grove in the Community Center and at least two collaborative murals downtown (one by the Rural Organizing Project and the other near the This ‘n’ That thrift store) contain elements of her contributions.

As time passed, age would hardly prove a barrier. For her 88th and 89th birthdays, she served as co-pilot to Ron Englund’s 1929 Fleet biplane at Jim Wright Field and continued her love for hiking until she was 90.

Health and memory issues finally prohibited her from these activities and she spent the last four months of her life at ElderHealth and Living Memory Village in Springfield where staff recalled her kindness and resilience even until her last days.

“I just admired how amazingly positively spirited she was through all the challenges that she faced and she faced a lot,” said Alan. “She had a great life. And she had a lot of hard times, but she transformed all of them and learned how to be happy in a way that I wish I knew how.”