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Arthur B. Shenefelt

Obituary for Arthur B. Shenefelt

August 3, 2018


Arthur B. Shenefelt, a former press secretary to U.S. Senator Vance Hartke of Indiana, and later an aide to Governor Milton Shapp of Pennsylvania, died on Friday, Aug. 3, 2018, at St. Mary Hospital in Langhorne, PA. He was 98. The cause of death was respiratory failure.

The son of a Methodist minister, Arthur grew up with his sister Jean in parsonages in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Ohio, and he said one of his earliest memories was waking to see the remains of a cross that had been burned the night before in front of the family's home. His father, the Rev. Arthur M. Shenefelt, had opposed a local element of the Ku Klux Klan from the pulpit.

He graduated from Miami University of Ohio with a degree in philosophy, and after briefly entering Garret Theological Seminary with the aim of following in his father's footsteps, he withdrew during World War II - - and was soon drafted by the U.S. Army. Nevertheless, he had already applied for a commission in the Navy, and he learned during Army basic training that the Navy had accepted him as a candidate. He thus served out the war as a Navy public information officer at the rank of lieutenant junior grade.

His occasional willingness to bend rules led him to go AWOL from the Navy on at least one occasion. Without authorization, he boarded a transport plane that took him to the Hawaiian island of Maui, where he found his brother-in-law, William "Bill" Watkins, a U.S. Marine lieutenant, who had just returned from the battle of Iwo Jima. Bill had been in the early waves of Marines landing on the island, and he had only 18 Marines left from his platoon on the first day of battle. (Bill went on to receive the Bronze Star for his actions in the battle.) After determining that his brother-in-law was indeed safe and sound, Mr. Shenefelt then found another transport plane that got him back to his base, and he said the Navy never discovered he had been gone.

After the war, Mr. Shenefelt found work as a copyboy for The New York Times, where he was eventually befriended by the legendary reporter and editor James Reston. He credited Mr. Reston with finding him a job writing for the Associated Press, and later he became press spokesman for the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers in Cleveland. In later positions, he served as director of press relations for the New York Central Railroad, as a transportation editor for the Journal of Commerce, and as a transportation adviser to Pennsylvania Governor Milton Shapp in Harrisburg.

While still in New York, he met the actress Gloria Willis, and they married in 1948. He remained devoted to her until her death in 2005.

In 1965, Mr. Shenefelt's long interest in the Civil Rights Movement led him to join Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s third march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama - - a march undertaken after two earlier attempts at such a march had been violently suppressed by state troopers and local police, and after the murder of a Baptist deacon in the run-up to the first march, and after the murder of a Unitarian Universalist minister who had joined the second march.

Mr. Shenefelt told the story that when he boarded a plane to fly to Alabama, he was seated next to a man named Tony, who was connecting from a flight from Los Angeles. They struck up a conversation, and when asked what he did for a living, Tony answered, "Oh, I sing a little." Mr. Shenefelt had taken voice lessons when younger, hoping for a time to become an Opera singer, and he concluded to himself that Tony couldn't be a very good singer - - because his voice was so gravelly.

Later, when they reached the other marchers on route, they joined an assembly that evening in an open field, near Montgomery, where a makeshift stage had been erected. Dr. King mounted the stage and thanked the new arrivals for coming, and not long afterward he introduced Tony, who would sing a song. Mr. Shenefelt knew a great deal about classical music, thanks to his mother, Martha Marion Baird Shenefelt. But he knew little about other styles. Mr. Shenefelt turned immediately with alarm to another person near him and exclaimed, "Oh no, that's my friend - - he can't sing!" The singer turned out to be the pop and jazz performer Tony Bennett.

In 1973, Mr. Shenefelt was serving as press secretary to Senator Hartke when he wrote a speech that Mr. Hartke delivered on the U.S. Senate floor - - after threatening to shut down most government operations over President Nixon's continued bombing of Cambodia. Opponents of the bombing had already threatened to block a measure to increase the government's debt ceiling, without which the bombing could not continue, and without which most government activity would cease on July 1. But the opponents had finally worked out an agreement with the President to pass the measure, on condition that the President would end the bombing by Aug. 15. Mr. Hartke balked at this agreement and began a one-man filibuster on the night of June 29. The senator estimated that another 18,000 to 20,000 Cambodians would be killed if the American bombing continued until Aug. 15.

Reading the next day from the speech that Mr. Shenefelt had composed, and invoking a passage from "The Brothers Karamazov" by the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky, the senator asked his colleagues, "Would you, by killing one small baby, bring justice to the whole world if you could? The answer [in Dostoevsky's novel] was no. So, too, I think the American people will not accept their paychecks, their benefits, their Government payouts, at the price of 18,000 helpless souls in Southeast Asia."

Other senators had spoken the night before of reaching a compromise with the President, but Mr. Hartke, reading from the speech, replied, "Compromise is a wonderful and powerful weapon for good in a free land....Compromise proceeds, though, from a right to give away what one has. We do not have the lives of the Cambodians to give. There can be no capitulation on that."

In answer to the complaint that responsibility for the bombing should nevertheless be laid at the feet of President Nixon, and not the Senate, Mr. Hartke, reading again from the speech, answered, "Some have rightly remarked that they are held hostage in this conflict over the executive and the legislative power. In any case, their right [the right of Cambodians] to survive rests with us in this chamber. I rather think that they live as our Republic once did, in a world of international disorder, in a world without the rule of law, and hence are held subject to a foreign power - - ruled, if you please, at the whim of this body and ruled without representation. What right do we have to take their lives? One might say it is not we but the President who is responsible for their lives. I say what we permit and could stop, we are responsible for."

Mr. Hartke eventually admitted that, by himself, he could not hold the Senate floor indefinitely, and he then relinquished it. As a result, the measure passed, and the bombing continued until Aug. 15.

Mr. Shenefelt was a man of strong convictions, with a gregarious tendency, especially in his later years, to approach strangers and strike up conversations. He was also intensely interested in politics and the press. Until entering a hospital during the last few days of his life, he scanned the paper edition of The New York Times every day, making notes on particular stories and sometimes reaching individual reporters by telephone to express his opinions about their work, sometimes favorable, sometimes not. He often did the same with other newspapers too. He was also increasingly fascinated by the lives of animals, domesticated and wild. Many who knew him said they had never met another person like him, and never expected to again.

Mr. Shenefelt is survived by his son Michael Baird Shenefelt of New York, his grandson Benjamin An Shenefelt of Auburn, Alabama, and his great-grandson Sebastian Badie Shenefelt, also of Auburn. He is also remembered with deep love and sadness by Heidi White of New York and Parvaneh Badie of Auburn, and by the families of his four nieces and the family of Jack Watkins. A Life Celebration will be held from 10 AM – 11 AM followed by a Memorial Service at 11 AM. on Saturday, Sept. 22 at the Beck-Givnish Life Celebration Home, 7400 New Falls Road, Levittown, PA, 19055. Contributions in lieu of flowers may be sent to the Women's Humane Society for the protection of animals, 3839 Richlieu Road, Bensalem, PA 19020.

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  • Women's Humane Society for the protection of animals
    3839 Richlieu Rd.
    Bensalem, PA 19020

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Beck-Givnish Funeral Home

7400 New Falls Rd.
Levittown, PA 19055
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