'Lucky to have had the life I had'


URBANA — Steve and Nadja Shoemaker's contemporary-style home lies on a ridge south of Urbana, overlooking the prairie.

Through its tall windows, they enjoy magnificent sunrises and can see 30 miles into the distance. Even on an overcast day, they can pick out the wind turbines over in the next county, etched in light gray against the darker sky.

"If you're going to die, this is a great place to be," Steve says, sitting in a comfortable sofa on the south end of Prairie Haven, the architect-designed house he and his wife, a retired University of Illinois microbiologist, had built 10 years ago.

"I love the house," Steve adds. "We have great neighbors and friends. I've been very fortunate. I feel like Lou Gehrig — lucky to have had the life I had."



The retired Presbyterian minister and University YMCA director, former Champaign County Board member, ex-radio host, poet and outspoken advocate for the less fortunate uses those words often.

He avoids "blessed" — he doesn't believe in the "prosperity gospel" — as he reflects on his life of 73 years and the fact it might come to an end sooner than he would like.

Shoemaker was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer three months ago.

His doctors told him with chemotherapy he had six months to live.

He tells people he's now into Month 3. He tries not to dwell on his cancer but will answer questions — though his daughter set up a CaringBridge website so his many friends and family can go there for updates.

He says his main symptom had been stomach pain, due to a growth that cut off oxygen to his intestines. Pancreatic cancer is usually deadly because the pain doesn't come until it's too late.

"In my case, it had already spread to the lungs and liver. The chemotherapy has reduced some of it so that's a good sign," he says.

Most days now, he's without pain. But he feels the side effects of chemotherapy. Low energy. Fatigue.

He sometimes needs a walker or wheelchair. And he finds that his emotions swing.

"I'll probably cry before you leave," he says.

But he doesn't, not until he points to two tangible markers of what he's most proud of in his life besides his two children, Daniel and Marla, and his friends, among them self-described agnostics and atheists.

One trophy is heavy and glass and set on a windowsill. It's the Intercultural Dialogue Award, given to Shoemaker in 2006 by the Intercultural Friendship Foundation for his efforts to bring together Muslims, Christians and Jews in a post-9/11 world, when he was director of the University YMCA.

The other, also made of glass, came from the Martin Luther King Jr. Advocacy Committee for Shoemaker's 20 years of service.

"I'm pleased that part of the local black community felt that I did something worthwhile," he says, choking up.

Many communities here, both off and on campus, feel the same way about Shoemaker. For years, he's been one of the most visible, outspoken ministers in Champaign-Urbana, advocating for the poor, homeless, minorities, gays and most recently immigrants.

In 1998, he was designated a "Point of Light" for his work with the homeless while pastor at McKinley Presbyterian Church, where he helped set up a basement shelter for homeless men.

Besides his outspokenness, Shoemaker is visible for other reasons: At 6-foot-8, he usually towers above everyone else in a room.

And for most of the past 50 or so years, he's worn a full beard. It's gone now as a result of his medical treatment.

Earlier in his life, he didn't get a pastor's job in the Durham, N.C., area because he wouldn't shave his beard.

"It was 1969, a time of hippies, protesters, malcontents," he says. "One of the messages (of the beard) would be to accept other people," Shoemaker told the pastor who was interviewing him.

"Sorry, that's not a battle I want to fight," the minister responded.

At the time, Shoemaker was working on a doctorate in religion at Duke University. He ended up preaching at two North Carolina churches for four years and spent eight as a Presbyterian minister on the North Carolina State University campus.

Then he and his wife, Nadja — they had dated while attending Urbana High School — returned to their hometown so Steve could take the pastor position at McKinley in 1981.

He doesn't regret having become a minister, saying a Presbyterian campus ministry suited his liberal leanings.

He doesn't regret returning to his hometown to live and work.

"I still have some friends here and still see some of them," he says. "I played basketball with Gary Storm in high school. He moved back after he retired, and I see him fairly regularly."

The only regrets he would mention: He wishes he would have been more organized and had made better grades in college.

Shoemaker, who played center on Urbana High's basketball team, went to Wheaton College, a private Christian liberal arts school, though he had offers to play the sport at the NCAA Division I level. He played for two years at Wheaton.

"I wasn't very interested in playing basketball," he says. "I didn't want to devote my whole life to basketball. It's just a game. I never could care who won. I didn't have the right attitude."

He was more interested in literary pursuits. He had begun writing poetry in high school. At Wheaton, he worked for the school newspaper and literary magazine.

At the time, he didn't want to be a minister. He wanted to be a writer.

He applied to writing programs but was rejected. His grades weren't good enough.

So he applied to seminary, feeling he would like to be a social worker in a church agency. But he realized he wouldn't like the bureaucracy.

At the time, he and Nadja were attending a Presbyterian church in Chicago, where 60 percent of the congregation was black.

"We loved the pastor and what he was doing in the neighborhood, trying to improve it," Steve says. "I decided then I wanted to be that kind of pastor."

Both Shoemaker's father and grandfather had been fundamentalist Baptist preachers. At age 13, Steve began questioning that faith.

Eventually, he and his father mutually decided they wouldn't discuss religion and would instead focus on the grandchildren.

Recently, though, Shoemaker's three brothers came to visit Steve. They hired a Baptist pianist to accompany them as they sang the Baptist gospel hymns of their youth.

Steve has always loved to sing. He sang in many choirs, including The Chorale, a mixed-voice community choir.

He's too sick now, he says, to sing with choral groups but he continues to write poetry, which he enjoys as an intellectual challenge more than emotional outlet.

Since his diagnosis, he's writing mostly limericks. He titled a recent one "Ol' Fuzzy Head."

The nurse said I had "Chemo Brain,"

From writing, I just should refrain;

But I have the notion

That writing's the potion

To retrain the brain to be sane.

He calls another one "When Cancer Patients Cry."

It may mean nothing when you see

The tears, or when you hear the voice

Begin to catch and whisper. The

Strong drugs for pain remove the poise

And self-control. Emotions rule


The patient, for some reason, may

regret the loss of family

And friends ... Feel sorrow, not to stay

In this the known world, possibly

The only world. Hope fades, Faith flees.

Actually, his faith — Shoemaker's 14-year WILL-AM radio show was called "Keepin' the Faith" — fluctuates, just like anyone's, he says.

"I hope for an afterlife, but I don't think it matters much what I believe," he says. "I think what matters is if there is a God that he's loving, compassionate and merciful, and what that God thinks of me. I think God is beyond us, and we can't comprehend it.

"How I live. I think that's what matters."

He also likes the Catholic belief that God has a "preferential option" for the poor.

"God has his eyes on the sparrow and not the eagle, on the people who are hurting," he says. "That's the God that makes sense to me."

He admits to feeling doubt, fear and worry at times.

"Sometimes I'm scared thinking about how my spouse will do after I pass away and my kids and my two grandkids."

But he says he's not afraid to die.

"I've had a good life, and I'm grateful for it. I hope there's an afterlife, especially for people who have not been as lucky as I have. I hope they will be compensated."

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