Richard Shireman found his calling by helping the downtrodden

ST. PETERSBURG — Richard Shireman spent his days seeking people whom others crossed the street to avoid.

He found the homeless living in parks and bushes, overpasses and railroad tracks. He told them of housing options. Rehab and detox. Jobs. Of hope.

He gave them a phone number. When you're ready, call.

And in helping the homeless, Richard Shireman finally found his calling.

• • •

He tried a little of everything.

As a teenager, he'd spend nights awake debating politics and religion with his best friend. Sometimes, he delivered sermons at church. He was never shy.

He inherited a love of the military and police work from his father, an Indiana state officer. After high school, he briefly attended the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. It wasn't a good fit.

"Richard kind of went to the beat of his own drum," said his mother, Norma Strickler. "He just was more outside the box. He did not want his thoughts processed by someone."

He transferred to a liberal arts college and earned a philosophy degree. It wasn't part of a grand plan, said his wife, Kris Shireman — he just enjoyed it. In Indiana, he became a police officer, spending 10 years patrolling the streets.

"Working with members of the community was very fulfilling for him," said his wife. "He was not a sit behind the desk with a pencil kind of guy."

He joined a Lutheran church and gave substitute sermons before realizing he wanted to be a minister. He headed to a seminary.

Mr. Shireman hated stereotypes. He was a blues fanatic who owned five guitars and had enough skill to strum along with B.B. King records. He liked motorcycles and cigars.

His sermons sounded like thinking out loud. He wore Hawaiian shirts and jeans and bandannas. Once, he asked the staff to paint the church walls yellow to bring things alive.

Eventually, the ministry wore on him. Mr Shireman, who had two sons with his wife, dreamed of Florida sunshine and a simple life. Maybe he'd get a barbecue cart and sell food at festivals.

After the family moved to St. Petersburg, though, he got a job at Operation PAR, an addiction and mental health service. Three years ago, he partnered with St. Petersburg police Officer Richard Linkiewicz to form the city's Homeless Outreach Team.

"He always had a dapper kind of look, a hat and vest, and he always had that kind of dry sense of humor," said St. Petersburg City Council member Jamie Bennett. "But he was just welcoming to all people, and it didn't matter how down and out you were. You measured up in his world."

Mr. Shireman and Linkiewicz found people sleeping in cars, washing their clothes under spigots, going through detox on the street. They stayed patient while people turned away their help.

"He wouldn't ram it down their throats," said Linkiewicz. "He was always patient and caring, knowing it's going to take time to work through to some of these people."

They didn't all call, but many did — hardened addicts, people with mental illness, people who had spent 30 years on the street. When they dialed, "Rich and Rich" came to help. "They'd get in the back of the car and they'd start crying," Linkiewicz said, recalling the memories. "I'm getting the goose bumps now."

• • •

Mr. Shireman loved to ride his motorcycle to clear his head. Friday, his family said, he did that, stopping at Ringside Cafe to hear some local music. On the way home, he collided with a turning car, police said. He died of his injuries at age 46.

The city plans to fill Mr. Shireman's role in the homeless outreach program. His family will host a memorial service Thursday at Pinellas Hope homeless shelter. That way, everyone who made his life full can say goodbye.

Stephanie Hayes can be reached at shayes@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8857.

BIOGRAPHY

Richard Shireman

Born: Dec. 20, 1962.

Died: Jan. 9, 2009.

Survivors: wife, Kris; sons, George and Dietrich; mother, Norma Strickler and her husband, Bill; father, Reg Shireman and his wife, Dorothy; in-laws, Don and Mary Alice Bickel; siblings, Dave Shireman, Billy Strickler, John Shireman and his wife, Rebecca, Cheryl Colliver and her husband, Doug, Judy Strickler; brothers-in-law, Jeff Bickel and his wife, Barb, Mark Bickel and his wife, Missie.

Services: 6:30 p.m. Thursday at Pinellas Hope, 5726 126th Ave. N., Clearwater.

Richard Shireman found his calling by helping the downtrodden 01/13/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 14, 2009 7:27am]

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