Family Stories William Martin Shank

William Martin “Bill” Shank was born on 29 June 1916 in Bradford, Pennsylvania. He was the second of three children of Mary Lilly and George Shank. He had an older sister Marcia Kathleen and younger sister Dorothy June.

Railroad Depot - Olean, New York

In June of 1916, his mother was traveling by train to visit her mother in Bradford when the train ran into a flood and all passengers had to be evacuated. The trauma caused Mary to go into early labor. She was taken to a hospital where Bill was born prematurely at 7 months, weighing only 4 pounds. He was not breathing at delivery and had to be revived by the doctors. After a brief stay in the hospital he returned home to 708 Green Street, Olean, New York.

While Bill was still in grade school his father was seriously injured and afterwards no longer able to work. Life became very difficult for the family and all of them had to get jobs.

Bill attended Olean High School from 1931 to 1934. During high school he was the class president his freshman and junior years. Besides delivering newspapers and doing other odd jobs, he worked those high school years as a clerk at the Larkin Economy Grocery. Bill graduated after his junior year.

Olean High School

His uncle Paul Lilly encouraged Bill to leave Olean to attend the University of Detroit. Paul had promised to pay Bill’s college expenses, but when Bill arrived in Detroit Paul was unable to help. A school administrator took an immediate interest in Bill and arranged for him to stay in Detroit and pursue his degree.

Bill worked a variety of jobs during college, including a job assisting a dental office fabricating dentures and bridges. He dreamed of studying to become a dentist but realized he did not have the necessary resources to do so. He graduated in 1941 with his Bachelor’s degree in Accounting.

Bill worked for the National Transit Corporation after graduation. This is where he met Marie Caren. Bill’s boss had asked him to help review some applications for clerical staff. He noticed that one applicant had the same birth date as his, so he casually left his office to get a drink of water and see the applicants. Not only did Marie have the same birth date…she was beautiful! He immediately selected her for the interview and then recommended her for hiring.

Bill and Marie married at St. Phillip Neri Church in Detroit on 23 August 1941. Their first child, Marcia, was born in May 1942. The following year Marie and baby Marcia moved in with grandma Mary Lilly while Bill enlisted in the Navy in 1943. He received special training at Harvard University. Bill and Marie enjoyed living a short time in Harvard Square where their second daughter, Patricia, was conceived.

Bill was a Naval lieutenant from 1943 to 1946, serving as a communications officer. Although he served mostly on transport ships, his service on a destroyer resulted in him being a decorated combat officer. He was recalled to active duty during the Korean War (1950 to 1952). Ultimately, Bill was offered an advancement in rank and a career in the Navy, but Marie objected. She did not want to have long periods of time raising her children alone – already five at this point – while Bill was deployed at sea.

Following World War II, Bill worked for the Internal Revenue Service. After a brief separation from the IRS to serve in the Korean War, Bill resumed work with the IRS in the Appellate Division. In this role, he helped evaluate tax cases that were being appealed by taxpayers. Some of the cases were complicated by apparent racial bias and prejudice.

Bill shared stories of many trips to the deep south where he was exposed to segregated bathrooms, restaurants, and water fountains, and how he deliberately crossed those segregated lines to demonstrate Christian values and social justice. His deep interest in the law motivated Bill to attend law school at night. He earned his Bachelor of Laws in 1956 from the Brooklyn Law School. His work with the IRS also included teaching a course on tax law at Vanderbilt University.

Bill, Marie and family in 1957

Bill always carried a deep affinity for an agrarian life, perhaps stemming from his childhood visits to the Lilly farm outside of Olean, New York. Throughout the years that he and Marie raised their 10 children, Bill maintained very large vegetable gardens. He would take his children to visit an old farmer he befriended to get cow manure for his vegetable garden. Finally, in 1971, he and Marie abandoned metropolitan Rockland County, New York, and relocated to a home with 23 acres of land in Delhi, New York, in the heart of the Catskill region. It became his “farm”.

Bill joined another attorney to open a law practice. He seemed to take special pleasure in offering legal services to those who had little money but could provide a side of beef or poultry or pure maple syrup as barter. During this time, Bill also voluntarily served the community as an emergency medical technician (EMT) for the local ambulance service.

It can be said unequivocally that Bill was an extremely hard-working man. His intellect was evident in his accounting skills and his understanding of the law, but there was also evidence of a self-taught craftsman. He designed and built a two-story addition to the family home in West Nyack, New York. He taught himself framing, roofing, plumbing and electrical work. He salvaged much of his building materials from demolished homes. Bill also was a fine baker of breads, donuts, and fudge, and took great delight in leading his children and grandchildren on berry picking adventures on his homestead in Delhi.

The later years of Bill’s life seemed to be the most contented. He and Marie looked forward to large family gatherings in Delhi, and to occasional family reunions with his sisters and their families. Bill always found much joy in babies and little children, and being generous to others. Bill and Marie always had room at their dinner table for others, some of whom lived in their home for periods of time. He had a knack of getting others to reveal much about themselves while he was more inclined to be non-disclosing. Consequently, his family is left with an incomplete narrative of this man, especially that of his early childhood and adolescent years.

In the end, Bill’s passing at age 79 was warm and peaceful. While Bill had survived cancer, open heart surgery, and the emotional heartbreak of losing his son Kevin, he would not survive acute respiratory distress syndrome following a surgical procedure. So, his children made their way one last time to be at his hospital bedside in Sarasota, Florida. Bill and Marie had made previous plans to have a memorial mass celebrated in honor of son Kevin’s birthday. Now, with his children gathered for final goodbyes, Bill insisted they leave him to attend the memorial mass. When they returned to the hospital and he was assured Marie had taken them all to a nice lunch after mass, he asked to be removed from life support. On 30 November 1995, Bill Shank passed on.

His devoted wife, Marie, survived him for 20 more years and a day. His legacy endures in his children and grandchildren.


Compiled by John Shank - 17 April 2017

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