Two-finger typing. Eleanor Parker Sheppard cited that ability as her qualification for entrée into public service. She parlayed that skill, along with forthrightness and natural poise, into becoming Richmond's first woman council member in 1954, its first female mayor (1962-1964) and a member of the Virginia House of Delegates (1968-1977). There, Sheppard sponsored the bill that formed Virginia Commonwealth University.
Former mayor Philip J. Bagley told reporters that although the letters ERA had feminist connotations nationwide, for Richmonders, especially office seekers, it stood for "Eleanor's Running Again." Though self-described as a "milquetoast," she ran for one office after another, never losing an election.
Sheppard came from Pelham, Ga., attended Limestone College in Gaffney, S.C., and in 1927 married Thomas Sheppard, a sales representative for candy manufacturer Beech Nut Packing Co. His job brought them to Atlanta, New Orleans, Phoenix and, in 1936, Richmond. Here they started a family.
When Sheppard escorted her first-born daughter, Edith, to Ginter Park Elementary, a teacher suggested that Sheppard become a room mother. Thus she started public life, typing children's room assignments for their parents. "Then I became health chairman," she recalled in a 1977 Richmond Times-Dispatch profile, "and the first thing I knew, I was president of the Ginter Park [Parent Teachers Association]."
"She came from a big family and she enjoyed corresponding and was a voracious reader," says Edith Ott, her daughter. She also enjoyed gardening (later heading the Maymont Foundation), dancing with her husband at the Hermitage Country Club, jigsaw puzzles and playing bridge.
In a picture of Sheppard's 1952 swearing-in as president of the Federation of Richmond PTAs, she "looks absolutely terrified," Ott says. "I am a trained psychologist, and I cannot explain exactly why she did it."
Perhaps it was tradition: Sheppard's father served on the Albany, Ga., city council, and her grandfather was a county treasurer. Sheppard's youngest daughter, Sally Dunnington, says, "Mother loved to be with people — to problem solve."
"She got more mileage out of her smile than any woman since the Mona Lisa," former mayor Bagley once said.
Richmond newspapers of the mid-1960s were unaccustomed to women in public office, and that was evident in their coverage of her.
Before the 1964 mayoral race, a Richmond News Leader editorial writer wondered how, as mayor, she would handle council's "verbal slugfests." He wrote, "One school of thought holds that the very presence of a charming lady in the presiding officer's chair will tend to ameliorate conditions."
On the day of her inauguration, a Times-Dispatch photograph of her (she was using a mirror to adjust her hat) was transmitted worldwide.
She was a Democrat who grew more liberal with experience, but she was no ideologue.
In the 1960s, Sheppard favored urban renewal, expressway construction and the demolition of Fulton, projects supported by her allies in the Richmond Citizens Association and its successor, Richmond Forward.
In the General Assembly, Sheppard and state Sen. Lloyd Bird guided the bill that unified the Richmond Professional Institute and the Medical College of Virginia. VCU was chartered on March 1, 1968.
Overby-Sheppard Elementary School, at 2300 First Ave., honors two women pioneers: Ethel Thompson Overby, Richmond's first African-American female principal, and Sheppard.
In 1987, a few months short of Sheppard's 50th wedding anniversary, her husband died of heart disease. Four years later, on March 14, 1991, she died in the family's North Side home at the age of 83.
"A woman's status is what she makes it," she said nearly 20 years earlier. "Her place is where she finds it — or where she seeks it."