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Eleanor Sheppard of Richmond and the Inch By Inch Solution

Inchworm Years ago, I learned that if I had somewhere to go, I only needed to take one step at a time to get there. It was from a lady who had accomplished many "firsts" in her life and knew what sh was talking about.

I had the opportunity this week to meet someone who reminded me of someone else who had first taught me that lesson That reminder triggered a truth recollection that, having once entered my heart and mind, has never left. In fact, it has been like a seed germinating into a general philosophy of life that has encouraged me in so many ways and which I have used to encourage others as well:

"Inch by inch, its a cinch."

More specifically, it is ""Inch by inch it's a cinch, yard by yard it's really hard."

I don't know who first said it; it has been quoted many times. However, I first heard it from Eleanor Sheppard, the first woman council member, vice-mayor, and mayor of my home town of Richmond Virginia. Born in 1907, her career in elected office began in 1954 and included service in the Virginia House of Delegates from 1968-1977. Her credentials, memberships, and honors are too numerous to recount. Her civic life included memberships on many boards, advisory commissions, and community organizations including her Baptist Church home.

The occasion for remembering was a Sunday and Wednesday night conversation at Southampton Baptist Church where I was a guest this week. It was there that I met a teacher by the name of Sally Dunnington and learned that she was Mrs. Sheppard's daughter.

Mrs. Sheppard spoke at my 7th grade graduation in 1967. Our 7th grade convened in a separate section of the Westover Hills Elementary School that was all our own. The next fall would signal a giant leap from  there to George Wythe High School where we would all be 8th graders, lower than lower class, so far at the bottom of the heap that we'd have to crawl to reach zero.

And she encouraged us to take one step at a time. It would not be necessary to make great leaps or  to skip steps. All we had to face was what was next and then keep taking steps.

We all listened. This was the first woman mayor of Richmond, an elegant and stately lady with a presence that exuded dignity. Yet she was speaking to us with the kind gentleness of a mother. She had done it and she knew we could do it.

It was my privilege to tell Sally that I remembered her mother and her mother's words. Imagine such an enduring memory. Mine is selective. I seem to only remember the really important things. It was encouraging to hear how those words had helped the daughter in a time of trouble and to share how they had informed my thinking and been used by me many times over to encourage others.

People who make great contributions and achieve great accomplishments are often forgotten by name, but the impact of their lives continues to add value to people and communities. Generations may forget, but in forgetting, they do not negate the contributions. Someone had to take some first steps for others to follow.

It was fun to hear how some of this played out in Sally's home life in the house of such a great mother and states-person, how the children were encouraged to be independent, to grow, and to become what they were made to be - inch by inch.

We all matriculate in the school of can-do long before we learn the contraction, "can't." Whatever we learn to do and to  be begins with baby steps and never graduates far beyond single steps. We have two feet and we get a bit off balance when we try to move them both forward at the same time. We develop rhythms  and large motor memories that become as second nature in our mobility, propelling us forward without effort. It is only as we  overwhelm ourselves with the distance between where we are and where we are going that we become frustrated, discouraged, and perplexed.

Then we sit down or run around in circles - because we just don't believe that we can actually make progress toward any great goal.

We forget that a little progress is far more than no progress. We are either moving forward or falling back.

How do you eat an elephant (not that I want to)?

One bite at a time.

Eleanor Sheppard was trying to instill that in us. She lived it and was passing it on.

I went on the 8th grade and then to 9th, 10th, 11th, 12th, college, and graduate school. I have found the words I heard that day to be perpetually true, spiritually sound, and increasingly encouraging. Just this week, I have had to apply them to a problem that has seemed so insurmountable to me and to my family that without this bit of advice, to be faithful in taking next steps, we might have surrendered to despair.

Since those days, I have heard the phrase from time to time. I include some references below. But none of these have impacted me as Mayor Sheppard's words did. I had often wondered what had become of her and what her legacy might have been. It remains profound. For one thing, she has at least one child, daily encouraging children who have been told they are losers that they can be winners ... inch by inch.

And I am living across the country trying to convey the same message to people who have given up on hope and abandoned the notion of dreaming.

It's a cinch ... one step at a time.

Take the  next step, trust God, and then check in with me for another pep talk if you need it. Soon you will be giving the pep talks and will be a role model for others.

That is how it works.

Here are some excellent references to this old saying accompanied by fine articles applying the principle to a number of settings:

- Tom Sims, The Dream Factory

Old_city_hall Old City Hall in Richmond, VA.

Here are some excellent references to this old saying accompanied by fine articles applying the principle to a number of settings: 

Coach Andrea uses it:
So does the Barefoot Runner:
And others such as … and ...!&id=157665
It is even a song: and in it provides encouragement for building a restaurant business. At it is motivation for completing a dissertation.


A question was raised about innovation and innovators at Toastmaster's  morning. It put my brain in gear theologically and entrepreneurially. I moved from the "creatio ex nihlo" to James Weldon Johnson's" Creation." It triggered the concept of co-creativity among those made in the "imagio Dei."

So, naturally, an acronym piped into my warped brain: WHY NOT?

Actually, it started with WHY.

But it is "why not" that is so often on the lips of innovators who quickly move past the "why" questions as George Bernard Shaw observed and Robert Kennedy often quoted him.


W = What the
H  = Heck
Y =  Yall!

What the heck, yall - throws caution to the wind  and envelopes a universe of possibilities.

N  =  Negate
O  =  Old
T  =  Timidity

Negate old timidity and the accompanying boundaries that are arbitrarily imposed by tired paradigms and limited thinking.

Having taken those steps, one is free to think new thoughts. "Why not" is not the same as innovation, but it is a necessary preliminary step in that direction.

Check out the new book link to "The Shaping of Things to Come" in the book column.

Seeing the World Through Georgia's Eyes

Georgia1Why the First Lady of Cyber-Space Has Inspired Thousands

Written in 2001 - A Tribute

She graduated cum laude from Capital University where she was a member of Phi Beta Kappa. She has been a music teacher, can play 12 instruments knows at least 7 languages. She has been featured in Discover and People, has conversed online with the Vice President, is remembered in the Smithsonian Institution and has been inducted into the Ohio Women’s Hall of Fame. She single-handedly designed the IBM Special Needs Data Base and holds the highest certification as a Braille music proof-reader for the Library of Congress. For eighteen years she has managed some of the busiest and most volatile forums on CompuServe with a membership of thousands. She is a woman of deep personal faith, Incidenttly, Georgia Griffith has been blind since birth and deaf for over 40 years.

Georgia’s achievements would have been noteworthy for a sighted and hearing person. In fact, most of us who met her in cyberspace would have never suspected that she was “handicapped.” I use the word, “Handicap” because that is Georgia’s word. She detests the term, “disabled.”

 “I am not disabled. I’m handicapped—just like in golf,” Georgia has reminded me time and time again. And I have never heard her complain about those handicaps.

Because, for many years, I have been preparing to write her biography, my personal files are filled with newspaper and magazine clippings, letters of congratulations from people in high places, including former President Ronald Reagan, and personal glimpses into the life and achievements of this remarkable woman that I call, “friend.” I have copies of awards, videos, interviews, and e-mails to inform my writing, but I have much more.

My memories are blessed by daily conversations over the past nine years, and two personal visits. No, I did not go to Lancaster, Ohio where Georgia lives alone in the home where she was raised. Georgia came to California with her long-time friend, Bettye Krolick with whom she served on the Board of Directors of the National Braille Association. Georgia loves to travel and she loves to sight-see. I will never forget taking her to the Science and Technology Museum in San Jose . Her curiosity and sense of wonder were active in the wide smile she displayed at we outlined words describing the exhibits in her hand. She touched displays and asked questions and, during breaks, yanked on her friends beards with a girlish giggle.

Georgia loves to eat too. Her mouth was watering in San Jose for a cup of strong, sweet, Vietnamese coffee with a plate of noodles. The stronger and hotter the better. At a banquet, people lined up to shake her hand and tell her how much she had meant to them through the years and how inspired they were by her life. She barely got through her dinner, but had a genuine smile and word of encouragement for each. When honored, she tries to deflect some of that to her friends and assistants. As an example of her humility, I have often received e-mails to this effect:

“Hurry! Write me an acceptance speech—you know, the usual, ‘I’m a nobody, but thanks for this great honor.’”

When Georgia goes out in public, she is in a wheelchair because of balance problems. However, in her home, she shuns that help and pulls herself up on a railing or crawls. Her work schedule is grueling for a young person, much less a newly initiated septuagenarian. She is constantly reading, writing, and thinking using her specially equipped Braille “monitor” on her computer. Instead of tired eyes, Georgia occasionally complains of sore hands—but she keeps going and going and going. In the evenings she reads the Bible and a novel. Retirement is never mentioned.

Every day, Georgia answers hundreds of e-mails and manages online forums with thousands of posted messages, library files, and management duties. She deals with contentious people with grace, humor, and firmness. Everyone is welcome in her forums, but they must comply with the rules and respect other people and their views.

When Georgia reads what is on her computer, she does not scan—a screen or quickly view graphics. She must convert graphical interfaces to text and read one line at a time. Having taught herself several computer languages in 1980, Georgia had to learn to navigate the world of the Worldwide web with all it’s “purty pictures” in the nineties. She did so with determination, grace, and prayer as she has tackled every other task in her life. It takes her longer to read all the material—because of the limitations of Braille technology, but once she has read it, she knows it. Her capacity for learning, digesting, storing, and retrieving information puts most people to shame. A word of advice to the novice: Never challenge Georgia to a battle of wits. You will lose

Georgia has often said, ”to live is to give” and she has lived by that philosophy. Her generosity is celebrated by many, as I can testify. Each of us, sworn to silence, is prevented from widely discussing her kindnesses to us. Therefore, we talk about her keen humor, lively faith, honesty, work ethic, compassion, fairness, and drive. . Mostly, we are grateful for her friendship.

 When I first met Georgia in the early nineties, she had recently lost her beloved mother, Toots. We prayed and talked a lot about Heaven and God’s grace. But through the years, I have learned far more about grace from her than I could have ever imparted. I am privileged to call this pioneering woman, my dear friend and sister in Christ.



Postscript: Georgia died in September of 2005 after a brief illness. It took three people to fill her jobs on CompuServe including the author. No one has been able to take her place.

(copyright, 2001, Thomas B. Sims, all rights reserved)