- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 27, 2000

RIVERSIDE, Calif.

Clara Shaver pushes her walker through the gray halls of the Riverside County jail, each step an effort for the 100-year-old volunteer.

Every other week since the end of World War I, she has come to the jail to lead a prayer service, and today she walks through the cellblocks to the cheers of dozens of inmates, women awaiting trial on everything from drug charges to murder.

She brings a message of hope to a place where hope is in short supply, often finding lessons for the inmates in her own story of love and loss, risk and determination and, above all, faith.

"You can't imagine the places this life has taken me," she said. "I can't hardly believe it myself."

Born Dec. 29, 1899, near Comfort, Texas, she was a small, sickly baby who some doubted would survive the rigors of turn-of-the-century ranch life, raising cows and pigs and churning butter by candlelight. By the time she was 7, she and her three siblings had had bouts of malaria, typhoid, diphtheria and chicken pox.

On the recommendation of a doctor, her parents packed their belongings into a covered wagon and headed to California to give the children a better chance.

She flourished, but her younger brother, Otto, was in failing health, suffering from an enlarged heart. In April 1911, he died at the breakfast table. The loss devastated, then transformed, Clara.

On April 11, 1911, just days after Otto's death, she entered a church, confused and angry. She left, she says, a different person, imbued with faith.

It was a pastor's sermon, she says, that made the difference. It was about a boy filled with guilt and depression over the accidental death of his sister, and how the boy found the strength to go on.

"I became a Christian," Mrs. Shaver said. "What had been one of the saddest days in my life became one of the happiest. It was the biggest change of my life."

Over the years she watched the 20th century unfold. She survived a bout of the 1918 flu that killed millions. She saw two of her high school teachers go off to die in World War I. From her family's porch she watched Halley's Comet pass through the night sky in 1910, then she saw its return in 1986.

Today she can call up memories few others can. She recalls her first ride in a car, a clunky open-air vehicle with a wind-up engine. She remembers the days before mass production of the refrigerator, her favorite household appliance. Among the presidents she has heard on the radio she has a favorite: William Howard Taft, who left office in 1913.

"He had such a cheerful voice," she said.

In 1920, she was in her final year at what later became the University of California, Los Angeles, studying to be a teacher. Two weeks before graduation, she was offered a job teaching elementary school in Riverside.

"They had all these children and no teacher. I couldn't say no," she said, though that meant quitting college before finishing.

Two years ago, at age 98, she finally received her degree. Awarded an honorary diploma during UCLA's commencement exercises, she became the oldest graduate in the university's history.

It was in the early 1920s that she met a pastor who was counseling men in jail and looking for someone to do the same for female inmates.

In 1923, married for almost two years and eight months pregnant with her first child, Mrs. Shaver walked up the steps of the Riverside County jail for the very first time. She had never been in a jail, never talked to an inmate.

"I was so nervous. I sat on the bench, clutching the railing," she said. "But when I saw these women, they weren't threatening. They were just lost."

Mrs. Shaver credited her faith for the good things that came during those years: Her husband's successful venture with a produce stand, her job teaching, two healthy sons and the continued jail visits.

She counts her blessings still, including her home, a pink, one-story frame house, which she maintains despite dimming eyesight. The small gray-haired woman greets visitors with a firm handshake and a strong voice.

But like many who live long lives, she knows tragedy as well. In 1928, her husband, Raymond T. Shaver, was killed by a drunken driver.

Mrs. Shaver didn't want to go to church. She didn't want to see friends. She says she felt empty, vacant. For days, she sat alone, asking herself questions about God.

"It was a day my faith was put to the test. I couldn't understand why He would give me so much and then take one of the most important things in my life away," she said.

The answer, she says, came in an image from a dream a pile driver trying to break through the hardness of her heart. Its message? To open her heart to others, she believes.

In 1943, her faith was tested again when her younger son, Bob, died of polio while doing missionary work in India.

"A lesser person might have collapsed under that kind of loss," said Lou Boldoc, a friend who works alongside Mrs. Shaver at the jail. "But she just put her faith in God and kept going."

During those years, she filled the back of her Volkswagen Beetle with clothes and food for the homeless; later she took the bus to a local nursing home to spread the word. All along, she gave her time at the Riverside jail, now known as the Robert Presley Detention Center.

On a recent visit she joined the inmates in singing "Amazing Grace." Their voices rose on one verse that said:

"Through many dangers, toils and snares,

I have already come.

'Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far,

And grace will lead me home."

Mrs. Shaver took the verse as a lesson.

"I venture to say we've all been through toils, dangers and snares," she told the prisoners. "We have survived them. They are there as a lesson for all of us."

Later, as the session ended, Mrs. Shaver picked up her walker and headed toward the door, stopping briefly for a hug from an inmate who whispered something in her ear.

"I have found some rough spots in my life, too," she said in reply. "The Lord has used sandpaper to smooth down the rough edges."

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