At Tirzah Presbyterian Church, so many cars arrived that people had to park on the grass, across the street in a field and along the road.
When you are a mother named Ruby Shillinglaw, and you had 88 children in your lifetime until your death at 79, it’s tough to squeeze everybody into a church who wants to say goodbye.
No, Ruby Shillinglaw did not set the world record for birthing kids. Four were her own. The others who came to her home, for days or weeks, or months or years, were foster children.
An astounding 84 of them, over two decades, to the farmhouse of Luther and Ruby Shillinglaw, where the corn grew in the dooryard and everybody – no matter their bloodline – helped plant and hoe and pick and shuck.
The pastor who handled the funeral, the Rev. William Johnson, spoke the number of foster children so slowly because the number is just so huge.
“This woman made a difference in the lives of just so many children,” Johnson said.
The Shillinglaw home was where everyone got a warm bed and meals and learned the word “share.” It was where whatever brought a child there plucked out of a cold, hard world – neglect, abuse, poverty – landed.
It ended with the embrace of Miss Ruby, who was born in the Depression in tiny Hickory Grove.
In that church for the funeral was a lady named Lily Gaynor. She is 39, with two sons.
“Maw-maw,” is what she called Ruby Shillinglaw. Lily Gaynor came to the Shillinglaw home as a little girl, a foster child removed from a home with 11 people in it, many of them kids, that had no running water, no toilet, no food.
“The Shillinglaws saved me, after, by the grace of God, a nosy neighbor called Social Services, and I was placed with them as a foster child,” Gaynor said. “That wonderful woman, she taught me everything I needed to know about being a person and a woman and a mother. She taught me to cook and clean. She taught me the value of hard work.
“That family was the best thing to happen in my life. I have a wonderful life because of them, and that wonderful woman.”
Luther Shillinglaw, Ruby’s husband of 63 years, said of the foster children, simply, “We wanted to help them.”
So that is exactly what this farming family did.
Starting in 1974 for 19 years, the Shillinglaws were stalwarts of York County’s foster care program. They were named foster parents of the year and helped recruit other foster parents in an era when it was far tougher to find people to help with kids.
“Miss Ruby – we always called her that – and Mr. Shillinglaw were always willing to take children in, day or night, for days or weeks, whatever,” said David Drennan, who ran the York County foster care program in those years.
“Their home was where life lessons were taught. Those lessons were family and love and work.”
Some kids didn’t take to helping with the farming and gardening, but others found it just what they needed.
“I had more than one child back then ask, after leaving for a group home or other placement, if he could go back to the Shillinglaws and Miss Ruby,” said Drennan.
A cousin of the family, Tina Head Nichols, said her aunt was a woman so admired for her giving nature, her strength for child stranger children who became a part of the family, that new family members became routine.
Luther Shillinglaw worked until after dark on the farm; Ruby took care of the house and children.
“My aunt, the family, believed every child needed a place to call home,” Nichols said. “She lived it. The place was always full. And we loved it all.”
For the Shillinglaw’s four children, life with a constant array of changing foster siblings became the norm.
Sheila Shillinglaw-Jackson, one of the daughters, remembers how it started with two brothers who were neighbors and stayed on for a long time as foster children.
Then, there was a boy who came to the house who had been abused so badly that he was in a body cast.
Girls and boys from all backgrounds, city kids and town kids – whatever – all were welcomed into the family.
Not every stay was a happy one – some foster kids resented being separated from their families and had trouble adjusting, Shillinglaw-Jackson said. Ruby and Luther Shillinglaw loved them anyway, and kept those kids as long as necessary.
Ruby Shillinglaw kept, for years, a file with every child’s name in it – the date of arrival, the date of leaving – so the names would remain forever.
“If children stayed for days, she took care of them; if they stayed years, she took care of them,” said Shillinglaw-Jackson. “If we went anywhere, we all went. Some people, 20, 30 years later, I see them in town, and they remembered my mother, and the love she gave.”
Gaynor, who now works in a doctor’s office, stayed as a foster child with the Shillinglaws for the longest time – 11 years. She keeps in touch with some of the other foster children, too. The binding force remained that loving home, and that woman named Ruby.
“I saw so many foster children come and go, and the family treated every one with love,” Gaynor said. “We were a family. We still are.”
Of all the things Gaynor learned from Ruby Shillinglaw, one thing has carried her through her own life – one thing that covers all of what she has done and tried to do, and what she will do when her own children get older and she becomes a foster parent herself.
“She gave me so many gifts; I owe her so much,” Gaynor said. “Most of all, that wonderful, sweet lady taught me how to love.”