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The Belle of Bellville

My Aunt Shirley Charpiot

Cindy Gabriel
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Shirley Charpiot, Elaine Tucker

SHIRLEY RINGS A BELL Her name is familiar to most anyone the least bit familiar with the town of Bellville, Texas. In this photo, Shirley Charpiot greets relative Elaine Tucker at the 2016 celebration of Shirley’s 90th birthday at The Richardson Ranch in Buckhorn, near Bellville. 

If you have ever lived anywhere near Bellville, Texas or know anyone who has, the name Shirley Charpiot might bring a smile, or (forgive me) ring a bell. Whenever someone says they once lived in Bellville I always ask if they know Shirley Charpiot. Literally, 100 percent of the time they say of course! 

Aunt Shirley didn’t seem surprised when I told her this. “I have always wanted everybody I knew to love Bellville, and made it a point to meet anyone new who moved to town. I was always kind of a cheerleader.” 

Actually, Shirley was drum major and a twirler in the Bellville High School Band as evidenced by pictures in a museum exhibit in Bellville’s town square. She graduated Salutatorian. “Not Valedictorian,” she emphasized of those days that coincided with World War II. “I had the second highest scores.” 

She is pictured here on the occasion of her 90th birthday party, proving that she hit the gene pool lottery in looks, brains, personality, and health. If she has logged any significant hospital time, no one remembers. Heck, she doesn’t even need glasses. 

To me, she has always been this glamorous woman who drove weekly to Houston to meet up with friends for a round of tennis at the University Club; took exotic trips abroad with her husband Bob; or headed down to Divine, Texas to hunt for quail along with sons Robert and David and their friends. “They called her Sure Shot Shirley,” according to her son Robert. 

Shirley lived “in the now” before it was trendy. A daily newspaper reader and book lover, she can talk to anyone of any age about endless topics. She is totally present in every conversation. 

Whenever I look back on an awkward conversation, I find myself wondering how Aunt Shirley would have handled it. She was five years older than my “high-strung” father who was full of opinions about politics, religion, and lifestyles of other people that did not fit his standards. He could match Aunt Shirley’s charm in one moment then, seconds later, spoil the mood of a family gathering with his unsolicited opinion. One time, I remember cringing at something Dad said. Then Aunt Shirley stepped in, gave him a big hug, and said, “Oh, Clymer Junior, you don’t really mean that.” Dad demurred, said something mildly funny, and the mood was saved. (Note to self.)

Shirley was not born into a bed of roses in October 1926 in Houston, Texas. “We moved a lot.” To say Shirley was the baby of the family is an understatement. Her sister, Inez, my grandmother, was 17 when she was born. There were three younger teenage brothers as well. She was my father’s aunt, though she was just five years older and seemed more like his sibling. She’s actually my young, cool great-aunt. 

Shirley’s father died when she was two, leaving the family without income. “I never knew where money came from, I guess my older siblings worked and contributed what they could.” As the older siblings married, Shirley and her mother would live with each of them, always sharing a bed. 

The family was kind of nomadic anyway, moving from town to town as oil patch jobs came and went. Besides Houston, Shirley lived in Raccoon Bend, Hempstead, and Woodville – “In this terrible house that was left by my grandmother,” Shirley said of the East Texas house. 

“My mother had this idea that if we moved, things would be better. They weren’t really.” Yet, Shirley managed to excel in different schools in spite of the moves. 

In Woodville, she won first place in a public speaking contest at the age of 10. In Hempstead, she earned a Loving Cup for Outstanding Student.  

Shirley Charpiot, historical photo

BELLVILLE, PAST AND PRESENT Shirley Tucker (Charpiot) is pictured here as a high school drum major and twirler. This photo hangs in a Bellville museum exhibit. 

Shirley’s traveling student days finally ended in Bellville where she spent four straight years at Bellville High School, while working after school as a switchboard operator, taking numbers and moving plugs. “I got 25 cents an hour.” 

I suspect Shirley caught the eye of Bob Charpiot (from a large French family) on the bus going to Bellville High School. Shirley said, “He didn’t give me the time of day. He was a senior and I was a freshman.”

Bob joined the Air Force and took off for WWII as soon as he graduated. He returned as a war hero, piloting 34 bombing missions directly over Germany in The Eighth Infantry. The odds of returning after 34 trips qualified him for membership in an elite group of survivors called The Lucky Bastards Club. From there his luck continued. Shirley said “yes” to his marriage proposal. Then the two headed to Austin where Bob pursued a Civil Engineering degree at The University of Texas. Then back to Bellville where Bob started a civil engineering company, Charpiot and Dunn Inc. Bob died at 84 in 2008. More unexpectedly, in 2020, Shirley lost her youngest son David at 69, who also raised his family in Bellville. 

Today, at 97, Aunt Shirley has finally turned in her car keys, making me realize she may actually be mortal. So why does she think she’s lived such a long, healthy life? “I really think it’s all these years of living in this wonderful community of Bellville.” There she goes again. Good thing, because now she needs a ride to church, bridge, and the beauty shop. 

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