Hi Shirley! Welcome to Madam Ambition; tell us about yourself?
Well, I was born Shirley Anne Pruitt. I was the fourth child of my mother and fathers. I have three big brothers and three little brothers as well. I have one sister so there was a total of eight of us. Growing up together, we had a marvelous childhood. My brothers always took care of me. My mother spaced out her children out, my brother was 21 when the baby was born and between me and the next child there is five years, so lucky we all got the chance to be the baby. MY father was an evangelist preacher in our church. My mother was a missionary and she could really expand on the Word of God. I was raised in a very spiritual home, trusting in God and believing in him and what he could.
Where are your parents from?
My mother was born in Brawley, California, in 1921. And my father was born in Tyler, Texas, right outside of Tyler, Texas in a little town called Como. He came from Texas to California when he was about 25. He and my uncle Floyd sent their luggage to Los Angeles and “hoboed” the way out. They would tell us stories about them sleeping in graveyards, “Why I slept in the graveyard because I knew dead folks couldn’t bother me was only the live people you have to worry about.” They were only going to be there for a short period of time, but my father met my mother at a church picnic.
My grandmother lived three blocks from us. The school that I went to was about four blocks in the other direction, so what we did was I could either go around my grandma’s and go to school or I could go straight to school depending on the time. My grandfather was a school janitor and he was there every day during elementary school so he would take me to grandma’s home for lunch. My aunts and uncles also grew up close to us. We would all get together during the holidays.
My father passed away when I was 16 from a massive heart attack, so my mother provided for us and we lived in a household of shared responsibility.
Did she have a job outside of the home?
My mother always worked. She worked domestic jobs because she only went to the ninth grade and her mother wouldn’t let her go to school. I remember as a child before I went to school she would take me with her to clean other people’s homes and cook their dinners. I would be playing with their kids while she was cleaning the house and cooking and doing whatever else she had to do. She was a head cook at the country club for 25 years. She make something out of nothing and she catered. A year after my father died my mother remarried and a year after that I married Big, my husband.
Tell us about that?
I was 18 when I married, and he was 20. I went to a junior college and met him in June and I often say I didn’t like him in December. I started dating him in January. He proposed in March and we were married in June – yea, so nine months I knew him and we’ve been married now for 56 years. We worked together but I never thought we would work because he was in college and I was in college. He received a basketball scholarship to attend the University of Nevada in Las Vegas. A few months later, we got pregnant. He was in school and pregnant and very ill the whole time I carried Michelle but we made it through just the two of us in Las Vegas with very little money. Given that Big was on a scholarship he didn’t get any pay, he had a little job on campus so he got a little pay, but not much, thankfully the Lord place people in my life that took care of me and my uncle Floyd helped us a ton.
When Michelle was born and Vic finished school he met this man who knew of a job opening up in public service working with the Human Rights Department for the state of Nevada. He interviewed for that job, and the Lord blessed him to get the job. The job took us to Reno and I had never been in snow in my life. I met elder Wynn who was a magnificent man of God, his wife pudgy is still a dear friend of mine. We were only in Reno for about 2 years and then we relocated to San Francisco in 1969.
What an exciting year to move to San Francisco…Tell us about that?
I had never seen so many people going on strikes. I’ve never seen so many people picketing. We ended up moving to Redwood City and I was able to transfer jobs. Wynn connected us to a church in Redwood City and we found another church. A couple of years, I decided I wanted to have another baby. I never wanted Michele to be by herself. I’ve got brothers and sisters and when I look back now because both my mother and father, my stepfather everybody’s gone. I thank God I do have a sister and four of my brothers are still alive. So you know I can call them and you know, we call each other and we talk to each other and we let each other know that we care. And that’s what’s important so I got pregnant and had our son in 1974.
Did you work through this pregnancy?
Oh yes, he was totally different. I wasn’t sick a day. I didn’t even think I was pregnant but then I started spotting and went to the doctor. I later pursued a management job. I asked my manager if I could take a test to see if I got an upper management job. He told me “Well, that’s generally for people who have their degree.”
Well, they didn’t know me because I could look stuff up, and it said a degree is preferred, not mandatory. So one day, one of the division-level guys walked through and he asked me, what happened? I told him I wanted to take the test to become a Communication Consultant. He said he would check into that for me and he arranged for me to take the test. I passed with one of the highest scores! It worked out wonderfully and I got that job.
How well did you do on the test in comparison to others?
They don’t tell you what the other people got, they just tell you that you did really well. But you know, I always had really good grades in school. In fact, I skipped the sixth grade. I went from fifth to seventh because I made straight A’s. So I graduated high school. I turned 17 in March and graduated in June. I did one year in college but when I married Vic, I thought he was gonna make all the money and I was gonna stay home take care of babies and keep this tidy house, but that changed.
Where was I… I worked that job for a few years but then they restructured part of it. They split the job and one group of people were writing and processing the orders and making sure the billing was right and another group of people was just straight sales. I went to the side that was writing and processing because I am pretty detail-oriented but then they split again and a little while later came a position available for a data communication consultant. They gave me that position and they fully trained me on designing data net data networks. I worked on Cisco’s Big Data ring that they have down in San Jose and helped design that. I helped design Willie Mays Ballpark and the data network that runs there today. I helped Cisco’s data network become the giants they are today. My husband and I went on a lot of trips because of sales and I remember meeting this guy. I wanted to work for him and I wanted him to be my sales manager.I told the Lord, “Lord, if I can work for this man, have the job I want in the location I want and make a certain amount of money, life would be perfect” and it wasn’t but a month or so later I got the job.
Did you apply?
I did apply. I got the job that I wanted. I worked for the man I wanted in the location I wanted and was making more money. The Lord gave me that. It just showed me that I could do anything but it only lasted a month. He retired to take care of his sick wife, and they transferred me to San Ramon, and the Lord reminded me he would take care of me whenever I went. I loved my job. I worked for AT&T for 42 years. They laid off a whole lot of people with service. And the year they laid me off. They laid off over 250 years of service in my one office. They gave me a financial adviser to talk to and he told me “look forward you are going to be okay.” The Lord has blessed us. I didn’t buy a home until I was 52 years old. I know what I paid for my house is less than a lot of people pay for rent. You know, because the Lord has just really blessed us. He makes ways when you don’t know there is a way.
Since her retirement, Shirley has devoted herself to the service of her church and her community. She regularly assists with the community outreach for her city in East Palo Alto. She coordinates a food distribution through her church in the neighborhood of North Central. If she hears of someone in need, she is either the one offering her service or figuring out who best can help. She sees her grandchildren who live in the area often, and talks to all of her family around the country regularly. Her life has been devoted to her family and service to humanity, and she continues to an example of service for others. I know Shirley personally, and her story is so inspirational. Around so much greed and materialism, she is focused on the needs of her community.