Perhaps it was how she was brought up, or maybe it’s just in her genes, but Sherry Lee Steiert never was interested in being a poster child for polio.
Never mind that she’d have made a good one. Struck when she was just 7 years old and paralyzed for a time from the waist down, Steiert survived to create a life that was exceptionally normal — a marriage, four lively children, a career or three — despite having to get along on uncooperative Mutt & Jeff legs that she herself calls “the shriveled one,” with the brace and the boot, and “the heavy one.”
And dance? Oh, yes, she danced. “I did my share,” she says, triumphantly. More on that in a moment.
Life turns on moments. A handful of fateful seconds here. A chance encounter there. Early on, Steiert’s life pivoted on at least a couple.
There was that Saturday morning in 1949. She was 7, hurrying down one of the side streets by Rodney B. Cox Elementary on her way to a dance recital in which her friend, Suzanne Williams (of the downtown Dade City department store family), was performing, when she was sideswiped by a boy on a bicycle.
He struck her, and she went down. Within a day or so, she ached powerfully in her lower joints, and a fever came on. Then, “My leg just gave way,” she says. Soon she was at Tampa General Hospital being treated for polio.
The collision and the onset of the disease are most likely pure coincidence, she concedes; polio was not transmitted by random acts of two-wheeler mayhem. But, it stands as one of those incalculable before-and-after episodes.
Steiert also remembers a brother enduring a bout of fever and aches only a week or so earlier, then bouncing back like nothing happened. Suppose the boy on the bike missed her. Did the crash somehow weaken her at a crucial passage?
That’s how it was with polio in the fear-soaked days before Jonas Salk’s miraculous vaccine stopped it cold in 1955. Some got fevers and aches, and were back playing in a week. Others got fevers and aches, and wound up in massive iron lungs.
“That’s what I remember from being in the hospital,” Steiert says. “The boy in the iron lung. That made an impression on me. No matter how bad it was for me, I was lucky. There were others worse off.”
Doctors recommended exercise, which is how the family moved from its San Antonio acreage to Sarasota, so Sherry could attend a school with a pool.
“I became a duck,” she says. “Third and fourth grade, swimming is what I did.”
Eventually, they returned to the family’s ranch land east of town, where Lake Jovita — the golf course and gated community — sprawls now. Then, it was 1,800 acres of citrus and wildlife, and more than enough to keep the second family of a locally legendary frontiersman busy. Alas, William E. Lee died when they were young, leaving not much money and absolutely no time for feeling sorry for themselves.
Which is how 14-year-old Sherry Lee found herself zipped into a gown of her mother’s design and stitching, on the elbow of her younger brother, practically shoved through the door of the Dade City Garden Club hall for a soirée remembered as the “sub-deb ball of 1956.”
She didn’t want to be there; she especially didn’t want her brother for a date. But, never leaving the house means missing the moments on which life changes, and if she’d stayed home, she’d have missed this one:
Phil Williams, Suzanne’s brother, future proprietor of Williams Lunch on Limoges, striding across the floor and asking her to dance.
“He was so good looking!” Steiert says.
“I remember it well,” Williams says. “Suzanne was Sherry’s champion. I’m sure she encouraged me. But, I probably would have done it anyway. It was the right thing to do.”
Today, the episode decorates Steiert’s memory like a flower pressed in a book: delicate and precious, a reminder of a moment that was full of life and beauty.
On a recent morning on the porch of Betty Burke’s antiques shop, these two events stood out from a lifetime when sometimes just getting out of bed was a major accomplishment.
Add a marriage — to a lumber mill worker and house builder, long since deceased — the rearing of four children, careers with Saint Leo University and the University of Florida/Pasco County Extension Office (where, self-taught, she designed the web page), and you have plenty of life for someone with two good legs.
There’s more. Not a closing chapter, by any means, but, deep into her story, a plot twist. Sherry Lee Steiert has become a quilter. She does it to fill up her days, she says, and they go to family and friends. As gifts. You simply can’t buy one.
But, you could win one. As Steiert says, she never has been one much for the cause of eradicating polio. “I contracted it so early, it’s part of who I am,” she says. Maybe she simply doesn’t want to be reminded that her timing was bad.
Still, her friend Betty is a Rotarian, and persistent, and Rotary International is bent on stamping out polio where it still lurks in the world. Bad stuff travels in this modern world, she notes, and if an infected someone from a Third World country comes in contact with one of the thousands of American children unvaccinated on their parents’ say-so, what then?
Like Rotarians everywhere, then, the San Antonio chapter is raising money for the cause. And next week, at the club’s Dec. 13 meeting, two of Sherry Lee Steiert’s quilts will be raffled off. See them at RotarySanAntonioFL.org, ask a club member, or call (352) 588-4444 to obtain tickets.
Maybe this, too, will be a moment: a simple act of selflessness that changes everything. Buying a ticket wouldn’t just affirm this late-coming poster child’s decision to join the fray. In the words of Phil Williams, it would be the right thing to do.
Published December 7, 2016