A steady hand at welding — and in all of life's endeavors
URBANA — Many first-time customers at Red's Muffler Shop are surprised to see a woman in one of the two bays, cutting and welding parts in exhaust systems.
Particularly older male customers. Some say they don't want a woman working on their car or truck.
One man like that was really mad when he saw Nelda Shaw working on his truck.
Later, he returned to Red's, apologized to Nelda and told her he wanted her to work on his truck again.
Shaw, 61, started wielding a welder at Red's 35 years ago, two weeks after she began working at the family business.
Here's how it happened: A part-time employee hadn't shown up for work. Nelda told her husband, Don, she could do the welding instead. He told her she couldn't, that the pipe was too heavy.
She did the job to prove him wrong.
"I don't like being told no. I have a problem with that," she said.
Scott West, who has worked at Red's for 30 years, specializes in pipe bending at Red's but welds, too, as do Nelda's sons Wayne, who owns the shop, and Roger, who also works at Red's.
"She can weld in spots I can't weld in," West said. "I plain do not have a steady hand. She does, and she can get around in real small areas using mirrors and stuff. She's pretty good at what she does."
Eventually, welding became Nelda's favorite thing to do. And she does many things.
"I don't have to think," she said. "I'm just doing it and that's it."
Considering the potential for burns, some people ask Nelda why.
She tells them, "Because I like to eat."
She's suffered a few on-the-job burns; the worst came when she was "cutting on an old Chrysler.
"It (molten metal) rolled down my neck. But the worse burn I ever had was when I was cooking fish in a deep fryer in my backyard."
When she welds, Nelda ties her long brown hair back from her face, using a black hair tie she keeps around her neck for that purpose.
She also wears a mask and gloves. When she first started welding, she didn't wear gloves because welders who did were called sissies.
"I mashed my fingers a few times before I started wearing them," she said.
She actually taught all three of her sons how to weld, though she and Wayne took welding classes a decade or so ago at Parkland College. (They already knew how to weld but picked up some "book terminology," Wayne said.)
Her middle son, Clint, an artist who lives in Charleston, uses his welding skills in some of his home remodeling jobs and while building some of his sculptures. His mother helped him weld together a large one that's now on display on the Eastern Illinois University campus.
Besides welding at Red's, Nelda handles all the daily book work at the shop at University and Broadway, near Five Points in Urbana. The former gas station looks like a man-cave workplace, with all the mufflers, pipes and other parts and equipment hanging from the walls in the two bays.
The business office is similarly crowded with more equipment, seats salvaged from old vans and lots of signs.
People have tacked their business cards to a board near the main desk, and many family photos are pinned to a bulletin board near the front door, among them one of Wayne holding a 60-pound catfish he caught.
Near the front window is a display of wrestling and demolition derby trophies. Nelda's two younger sons wrestled when they were students at Urbana High School, and all three sons competed in demo derbies.
So did Nelda. Once, in 1980, before she became pregnant with Clint. She drove a beat-up Dodge Polara in the Shriners' demolition derby at the Champaign County fairgrounds.
At the time, she was the only woman in the derby.
As a result, she encountered hostility from some males. She remembers walking into a convenience store after her victory and overhearing guys complaining about a woman having won the derby.
"I didn't say one word," she said.
Like her sons and late husband, Nelda fishes and hunts as well.
"Deer hunting was a whole lot of fun with them," she said.
A photograph at Red's shows her in front of a backhoe from which two large deer carcasses hang. She shot one of them, using a bow and arrow. That was the only deer she got because she didn't do much deer hunting after that.
That's because she's too busy doing most of the maintenance work at the mobile-home park she owns in Bondville and the rental properties she owns in Charleston.
She likes physical labor, saying it keeps her fit.
When she discovered water under her home in east Urbana, she dug trenches under the house and away from it to drain the water. Her living room is full of projects, among them a ceiling fan she's working on and shingles she will install on the side of her home.
She also plows snow; besides owning and running Red's, Wayne Shaw operates a snow-plowing business.
And recently, Nelda spent a weekend at her home reassembling an antique potbelly stove she had purchased in Kentucky, where her family owns land and where she was born and grew up.
She remembers being a tomboy who enjoyed her family farm near Glasgow. There were lots of animals, and she rode horses bareback and milked cows by hand.
She loves animals and keeps many at her home, among them a pit bull named Sheba — Wayne rescued him from a situation in which he would be mistreated — and a Chihuahua named Baby. The 3-pound Baby dominates Sheba and the rest of the household.
Outside Nelda keeps ducks, chickens, two turkeys and three pet pygmy goats. She never had goats when growing up. She likes their curiosity and smarts.
"They follow me around," she said. "If I run into the house and stay too long, they come up to the door to see whether I'm inside."
Asked their names, she laughs at her lack of originality before reciting them: Nanny, Billy and Sugar Baby.
Before Nelda married Don Shaw, who was also from Kentucky, she was not into automobile mechanics. Her first job was in a dress shop in Glasgow — she didn't like that job because the male store owner would scold his wife and other women in public. She doesn't like to see anyone mistreated.
After leaving, she worked for six years as a cashier and sales rep at the telephone company in Glasgow — when there were party lines and the computers filled one big room, she said.
In 1976, she and her husband moved to Urbana. Don Shaw went to work at Red's Muffler Shop, then owned by his brother, who was called Red because he had red hair.
Nelda worked for a year at Urbana Auto Sales, also owned by Red Shaw, before going over to Red's Muffler Shop. She and her husband bought the business in 1978. Don Shaw then became "Red."
Actually, "Everybody who comes to the door calls whoever's at the desk 'Red,'" said Wayne Shaw. He took over the business in 2004, after his father died.
"Some call me Miss Red because they remember I was married to Red," Nelda said.
And sometimes they call her just Red.
Roughly once a week, though, a customer who calls Red's and gets Nelda on the line asks to speak to a mechanic.
"Honey, I'm sorry. You're talking to one," she will reply.
Yet Nelda is not brassy or domineering. She is tough — her sons call her hard-headed — but she has a kind heart.
She can never turn down a request from a parents' club or from the Urbana High wrestling or football teams.
"She's always the first person to offer to help somebody if they need it," Scott West said.
Rather than being a feminist, Nelda considers herself strong-willed and -minded, like one of the women she most admires: Pat Summitt, head coach emeritus of the Tennessee Lady Vols basketball team.
Photographs of Summitt, the NCAA leader in wins among all coaches, are posted at Red's Muffler Shop. Nelda fondly remembers when Summitt was "fixing to have one of her children" and went ahead on a recruiting trip anyway.
"They had to put the plane down on her way back home so she could have her baby," she said.