Florence James Shook — a Westport resident for 63 years — died on October 26. She was 97. She lived here when this was truly an artists’ colony — and folks in the arts had fun.
Florence helped her husband Hal produce “Man of La Mancha” on Broadway — but they also played a key role in the Coleytown Capers, an elementary school fundraiser with Broadway-type talent.
Florence’s daughter Melody James wrote this tribute to her mother:
Florence is remembered for her enormous love, friendship and generous spirit. She co-founded a school, advocated for actors, adored dogs, and relished playing cards with her family. She loved Compo Beach, people, picnics, parties, poker and laughter.
Quick to come with chicken soup, a glazed ham, or easily add another place at the table, Florence possessed a particular affinity for those in trouble or with “broken wings.” “There will always be people in trouble whose lives are in turmoil and need immediate help,” she said.
She was born May 26, 1914, to Anne Dieckman and Henry Sperl in the Bronx, “when it was still farmland.” When her father died, Florence moved to Eastchester with her mother and sister Harriett, to live with her grandparents, great-grandparents and aunt. She spoke fondly of 4 generations gathered around the dining table every night, including her great-grandfather Gopa, wounded during the Civil War at Gettysburg.
Florence graduated business college and landed a job in radio programming. The position evolved into a dream job: director of radio commercials and casting, working with hundreds of actors. She spotted a promising Neighborhood Playhouse graduate and invited him to her casting office. The tall, dark, handsome man appreciated her gesture and said if Hollywood didn’t work out, he’d be back to see her. He was Gregory Peck.
She encouraged Mel Allen, the sportscaster, and claimed her knowledge of baseball stemmed from Mel taking her to her first Yankees game. Another early “find” and friend was Ralph Edwards of “This is Your Life” fame.
Florence’s life changed when she met a tall redhead from Chicago. Hal James, hired by her agency to develop new programs, had been an actor. He became a radio and TV producer, advertising executive and Tony Award-winning Broadway producer.
They married Thanksgiving Eve 1938. Ten years later the couple moved to Westport.
Florence created welcoming homes, on Red Coat Road and then Wilton Road, raising 3 children — Michael, Beau and Melody — all graduates of Staples High School. Florence served as “den mom” to hundreds of kids, and supported her family’s passions.
Active members of the Westport community, Hal produced and Florence publicized Coleytown Capers, a fundraiser for the new elementary school, utilizing prestigious local talent. Both held leadership roles in PTAs, the Saugatuck Congregational Church, YMCA, Norwalk Symphony, Westport Arts Council and Staples Scholarship Committees.
Florence co-founded the after-school Rendezvous Room at the Y for teens. Hal and Florence partnered with old friends to create WVET, later WROC, a radio station in Rochester.
In the mid-1960s Hal became a Broadway producer. and Florence his unofficial producing partner. They fundraised and traveled the world for the shows he produced, including “Man of La Mancha” (which she helped with, unofficially) and “Hallelujah Baby.” Reluctant to leave home, Florence loved traveling — once she arrived. Favorite trips included Europe, Japan, Prince Edward Island, the final crossing of the Queen Mary I, India and Cuba (pre- and post-revolution). She loved Disney World, where “you park your troubles at the door.”
Florence was a staunch supporter of every child feeling loved and comfortable in his or her own skin and identity. She raised money for Negro Ensemble Theater, Habitat for Humanity and Tougaloo College. In 1968, after attending a Tougaloo Choir concert at Carnegie Hall the night Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, Florence co-founded the Saugatuck Nursery School to carry out his dream.
Now in its 42nd year, the school remains committed to creating opportunities for children of different colors, languages and nationalities to learn and play together in a loving atmosphere. In 2009, Florence was honored for her 41 years of service to the school.
Widowed at the age of 57, Florence continued her love for actors with activism in the Episcopal Actors Guild in New York City. She served many years as chair of the grants committee, helping people in the theater who suffer from AIDS and face daily challenges stemming from the precarious economics of life in the arts.
Florence believed people belonged in pairs. She was fortunate to meet and fall in love with Euclid Shook, a Weston artist, after both were widowed. They met in 1973, married in 1985, and enjoyed their children, grandchildren, friends and his enormous garden. He died in 1988.
Florence is survived by a large, extended family: her children, Michael of Chicago, Beau of Weston, and Melody of New York and Westport; adopted son James Arden of Port Chester; step-children Dona Egan and Alex Shook (pre-deceased by Jonathan Shook); their mates, 17 grandchildren, and 16 great-grandchildren.
A memorial to celebrate her life is planned for Saturday, December 17 (3 p.m., Green’s Farms Congregational Church).
In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations be sent to the Saugatuck Nursery School’s Scholarship Fund (245 Post Road East, Westport CT 06880) or the Episcopal Actors Guild (click here).