Longtime friends Shuree Sleeper and baseball Hall of Famer Bobby Doerr chat and hold hands as he prepares to autograph baseball cards and pictures for his fans.
Caregiver Shuree Sleeper has been a bright spot in the life of 96-year-old baseball Hall of Famer Robert “Bobby” Doerr for nearly a half century
Story and photos by David LaBelle
“Good morning, Bob,” Shuree Sleeper shouts, greeting the oldest living member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
“Oh, hi honey,” responds 96-year-old Robert “Bobby” Doerr, running a hand over his scalp. “How’s my hair?”
“You look good!” Shuree shouts again.
“Well, OK,” he says, fixing his aqua blue eyes on the rust-haired woman he has known for nearly a half century.
Shuree is a private caregiver to the last living man to play major league baseball in the 1930s. Though his hearing has faded, his wit and recall seem unimpaired. He is thoughtful and speaks deliberately, careful to say only what he means.
“I heard you took a trip to the hospital last night,” Shuree says, leaning over her boss and lifelong friend.
She doesn’t baby talk the aging celebrity, like some well-intentioned caregivers.
“Yeah,” Bobby says matter-of-factly. “I had a little trouble.”
Shuree spots the IV stint still in his arm, and a fire grows in her hazel eyes. As protective as a mother cat, she growls, “They didn’t remove the stint.”
She wants to know why.
A Life-Changing Opportunity
The two first met when Shuree, 50, was just a little girl and attended the same church in Junction City, Oregon. But the bond was forged when the then 23-year-old unwed mother began cleaning the house of Bobby and Monica Doerr.
“I was dead broke, had a 2½-month-old baby, all of that, and it was just rough,” remembers Shuree. “They had no questions, no this, no that, and it was just well, OK. They took me as I am and we just got on so well.
“They were so funny, you almost had to make them let you do stuff for them. It took me, I don’t know how long, to dust the whole house and the den. Monie would go, ‘Oh, just vacuum over there. That is enough for today.’ They were always concerned they were going to wear me out. It cracked me up.”
Thankful for the work, but still insecure about her job future with the Doerrs, Shuree fondly remembers one reassuring day.
“I was inside cleaning, and Bob and Monie were working outdoors when the phone rang,” Shuree says. “I answered. Turns out it was Ted Williams.”
Dubbed the greatest hitter who ever lived, Ted was a former teammate of Bobby’s from the Boston Red Sox.
“He didn’t say who he was,” Shuree says. “Bob gets quite a few people who call him. No biggie.”
“Well, do you think you can find him for me?” the caller asked. “This is Ted.”
“I went Ted? Uh? Then I heard him laugh in the background.”
“You just tell him that Ted’s on the phone, and he’ll know who I am.”
“I put down the phone and went running outside to find Bob, who was hoeing weeds and talking with Monie. I told him there is a Ted on the phone.”
“He said, ‘Ted?’ Then Monie looked at him. ‘Ted Willams.’
“’Ted!’ he cries, as he drops the shovel and goes chugging into the house. ‘Ted! Hey, how are you? You didn’t yell at her too hard, did you? We’d kinda like to keep her around.’
“He told Ted Williams he would kinda like to keep me,” Shuree recalls, her voice cracking.
Bobby holds a Merchant Marine flag aloft as Shuree pushes him during a local Fourth of July celebration.
Not Just a Job
A job cleaning for the Doerrs that began 27 years ago has grown into an enduring friendship.
“They are like family,” says Shuree.
The later years she was a personal caregiver for Monica, who battled multiple sclerosis since her late 30s and died in December 2003. Shuree then cared for Bobby and his sister, Dorothy. The pair lived together for about a year until Dorothy’s passing at 91, three years ago.
“I can’t imagine how different my life would have been without Bob and Monica,” Shuree says. “She was so sweet, so kind. They were so much alike, like two peas in a pod.”
Shuree describes herself as a Type A personality: hyperactive, often anxious and admittedly insecure. In contrast, Bobby is calm, confident and steadfast.
Through the years, her relationship with the wise and gentle celebrity has become more like that of a father and daughter than a client and caregiver.
Although the Doerrs had a son, Don, they never had a daughter.
Shuree says Bobby has always “kinda settled” her, and through tough times would calmly encourage her.
One thing they share is a youthful appearance. Both look and act much younger than their years.
Approaching the century mark, Bobby is as handsome late in life as he was as a young man. He has his own teeth, a healthy head of white groomed hair and striking blue eyes.
Trim, with a little girl’s face, Shuree, 50, has the look of a woman years younger.
Not Her Intended Career Plan
Shuree cleaned houses while in high school and volunteered at a nursing home.
“I just got on with the people,” she remembers. “I would hold their hands, talk to them and listen to their stories.”
She continued to clean houses after graduation, always determined to get a college degree “to prepare for a better life.”
She did not intend to make a career of caregiving, nor did she plan to continue cleaning houses. But 30 years later, she still is doing both.
In her early 30s, Shuree enrolled in community college and began pursuing a bookkeeping degree, which she says was no small feat.
“I was having a hard time for a long time because I struggled in school,” she says. “I had to get A’s, and I about made myself a nervous wreck.”
It was during this difficult time her clients, including Bobby, gave her the greatest support.
“I have never been a confident person, and these people have been a balm to my ego and my soul,” she says. “They’re just wonderful to be around. They are like, ‘Honey, you are just so wonderful. We just love you. Please don’t ever leave me.’ They get tears in their eyes if they think I am not going to be there any more.”
Shuree fights her own tears remembering some of the people she has cared for.
“I just love these people,” she says. “I love ’em to death. I connect to them. I don’t see them like a lot of people do. I find them fascinating, vibrant, loving. They are the most appreciative persons.”
After earning her associate degree, Shuree felt relieved and “a sense of accomplishment” and found work as a bookkeeper.
“When I graduated from college, I said, ‘I’m not going to be doing that anymore,’” she remembers, laughing. “I said I have been housecleaning for a long time. It is hard, hard work. I can’t do this forever.”
But after three or four years, she realized bookkeeping was not where her heart was. She missed the human interaction.
“I will just sit in an office and do bookwork?” she asks rhetorically. “No! I don’t know. I just gravitated right back to it.
“I keep thinking, ‘Shuree, you’re just cleaning stuff again. What were you thinking? All that money and all that effort and nearly a nervous breakdown getting though school, and you are back at it?’”
She rolls her eyes.
A Balancing Act
With at least eight clients to care for and houses to clean, in addition to being a wife and mother, her life now is a complicated balancing act.
Shuree and her husband, Scott, recently celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary, and have two sons together: Morgan, 27, and Alex, 18.
She said she has “tried and tried” to find part-time work that allows her to work around when Bobby needs her, but that it is not easy to find.
“There is no way on earth I would leave Mr. Doerr,” she says adamantly.
She refers to him as Mr. Doerr, but calls him Bob to his face.
She laughs, thinking how difficult it was to learn to call her boss by his first name.
“It was hard for me because I didn’t call Mr. Doerr anything but Mr. Doerr until after Monica died,” she says. “He is sitting there at breakfast one day and says, ‘Shuree, do you think we’ve known each other long enough now that you could call me Bob?’”
Shuree works for Bobby three days a week now, but usually stops by daily to check on her friend.
As difficult as her life is now—juggling caregiving, housecleaning, marriage and motherhood—she assures she “wouldn’t trade it for money.”
“I have been so lucky,” she says. “It’s been wonderful, a wonderful time.”
Bobby’s son, Don, 71, is naturally protective of his aging father.
“I trust her totally,” he says of Shuree. “She has been a faithful caregiver, always going out of her way to help and protect Dad with his correspondence, medical deliveries and other issues. Frankly, without her assistance, I don’t think he’d be able to function as well as he does, even with the staff support at the retirement center.”
A Two-Way Fan Club
Bobby and Shuree have mutual admiration for each other.
“Anybody who is around you is a better person,” Shuree says, raising her voice loud enough so Bobby will be sure to hear her.
Bobby hears and modestly deflects the praise.
“She does everything for me,” he says. “I’ve known her for years, and she’s right there all the time. She’s a good one.”
Shuree credits Bob and Monica.
“They make you a better person,” she says. “People who have been around them have been better people. He has really touched and moved people, and they even made changes in their own lives. It’s just remarkable. To this day, they still write him and thank him.”
Shuree turns and shouts, “I love you to bits, honey, you know that. You’ve been awfully good to me.”
Bobby dodges the praise.
“Well, you are easy to be good to,” he says.
Asked if Shuree has been like a daughter to him, Bobby’s blue eyes open wide and twinkle. He smiles unabashed and pats her on the knee.
“Oh, yeah, she was my daughter alright, whether or not I had her,” he says. “She’s my girl, from that high.”
He extends his right hand from the lap of his wheelchair and measures about two feet from the floor.
“You and Monie always said you’d adopt me,” Shuree shouts. “I was awful grateful for that. But my dad decided he’d hang onto me anyway.”
He pats her folded hands and adoringly repeats, “Whether or not I had her, she’s my daughter.”
Shuree gets quietly emotional thinking about the inevitable day when she no longer will be able to say good morning or watch “Wheel of Fortune” or a baseball game with the man she adores.
Her eyes begin to fill with tears.
“I don’t know,” Shuree says. “He’s so grounded and so assured in his faith that I keep remembering, it’s not like I’m not ever going to see him again.”
There is a long silence and then the nursing home intercom squawks with the day’s announcements.
“I wish we had an off switch for that thing—it drives me nuts!” barks Shuree, seizing the opportunity to escape her melancholy and recapture her feisty spirit.
“What time does Boston play?” Bobby asks.