Robert Shields, Wordy Diarist, Dies at 89
- Robert Shields, Wordy Diarist, Dies at 89
By DOUGLAS MARTIN
The Rev. Robert W. Shields, a preacher and teacher who for a
quarter-century spent four hours a day recording his life in
five-minute segments from changing light bulbs to pondering God to
visiting the bathroom and ended up with a 37.5-million-word diary,
perhaps the most verbose one ever, died on Oct. 15 at his home in
The cause of death was a heart attack, his daughter Klara Hicks said.
Mr. Shields was 89, and little more than a decade had passed since his
second stroke ended his ability to type. He said in an interview with
National Public Radio in 1994 that stopping the diary would be like
"turning off my life" so perhaps his spiritual death was in June 1997.
He knocked out three million words in his best years, a million in
slow ones. Guinness World Records does not address diary word lengths,
but said the longest diary measured in duration was done over 91
years by Col. Ernest Loftus of Harare, Zimbabwe.
Mr. Shields's 37.5 million words apparently exceeded the more than 21
million in the colorful diary of Edward Robb Ellis, a newspaperman who
died in 1998, and the 17 million words of Arthur Crew Inman, a
reclusive poet who died in 1963. The 17th-century London diary of
Samuel Pepys was a mere 1.25 million words.
Mr. Shields's diary may not be read nor subjected to a word count
for 50 years by the terms under which he gave it to Washington State
University in 1999. And as blogs threaten to revolutionize the very
concept of a diary, who knows if someone somewhere has somehow written
an even more prolix, but still-secret diary?
What seems certain is that Mr. Shields believed that nothing truly
happened to him unless he wrote it down.
He regularly recorded his body temperature and blood pressure;
critiqued newspapers; and described all the junk mail he got and the
cost of almost everything he bought. He had three dozen ways, none
obscene, to describe his urinations, all recorded. He slept in
two-hour stretches in order to record his dreams.
An impish, balding man, he mimicked the inventor Buckminster Fuller,
who documented his life in what he called a chronofile by pasting
letters, bills and all manner of pieces of paper in a huge scrapbook
for 68 years. Among other things, Mr. Shields taped nasal hair into
his diary for DNA study by future scientists.
He said he did not know why he started keeping a diary in 1972. He
just knew he could not stop.
"You might say I'm a nut," he said in an interview with The Sunday
Oregonian in 1996. "We are driven by compulsions we don't know."
Mr. Shields hoped historians would find his minutia meaningful.
"Maybe by looking into someone's life at that depth, every minute of
every day, they'll find out something about all people," he said in an
interview with The Seattle Times in 1994. "I don't know. No way to tell."
Robert William Shields was born in Seymour, Ind., on May 17, 1918. His
father was a speed-typing champion who could type the Gettysburg
Address over and over at 222 words a minute. He began a diary at 17,
mainly to chart a romance, but lost interest.
He graduated from Franklin College in Indiana and attended several
divinity schools before being ordained as a Protestant minister. He
served congregations in Indiana, New Hampshire and Iowa before he
tired of church politics. He moved to South Dakota and became a
high-school English teacher.
He paid bills by teaching, working for a high-school yearbook company
and doctoring books for vanity presses. Less lucratively, he wrote an
unpublished history of a train-robbing gang, and 1,200 poems, of which
he said five, maybe six, were good.
In Dayton, Mr. Shields did not minister to a church, but presided over
weddings and funerals. He not only did not charge newlyweds, but also
gave them a cash gift.
To do his diary, Mr. Shields, usually in his underwear, retreated to
his back-porch office. He sunk into a tattered secretary's chair
cushioned by a foam doughnut. He was surrounded by six I.B.M. electric
typewriters, arranged in a horseshoe. He migrated from machine to
machine. The compete works of the Swedish philosopher Emanuel
Swedenborg and lots of typewriter ribbons surrounded him.
In addition to 91 boxes crammed with 25 years of his life, Mr. Shields
is survived by his wife, the former Grace Augusta Hotson; his
daughters Klara Hicks, of Seattle, and Cornelia and Heidi Shields,
both of Dayton; his brother, Monty, of Seymour, and four grandchildren.
After he became disabled in 1997, Mr. Shields dictated diary entries
to his wife until she quickly tired of the exercise. Three years
earlier, when an interviewer had asked her about her husband's
fixation on posterity, she replied, "Good old posterity."
Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company