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Living the dream


September 2012

Peter Shelley was recently given the Ellis Island Medal of Honor.

One of Peter Shelley’s earliest memories is crossing the Pyrenees Mountains on foot with his mother, Ruth, and his little brother, George.

Poor little George had to be gagged so he wouldn’t make any noises that would give away their location.

Little did young Peter know that years later, his courageous journey would earn him an Ellis Island Medal of Honor.

Born in Ivrea, Italy, Peter Shelley’s family fled to Belgium to escape detention in 1939.

When Hitler invaded Belgium, Shelley’s father was detained. Shelley does not know the details of his father’s death, since his mother never discussed it; he knows only that his father was shot while trying to escape.

Ruth Shelley managed to get the family to France, where they were placed under house arrest. They escaped to Spain, where Ruth got word about One Thousand Children. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt had convinced her husband to issue 1,000 visas for Jewish children to come to America. With help from the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, Ruth took her boys to Portugal to board a ship bound for Philadelphia. Shelley has a newspaper photo of himself and his brother on the dock in October 1943. The visas were for children only, so Ruth was forced to stay behind. Shelley was 6 years old, his brother 4.

Once the boat landed, the boys were pinned with a tag that read "San Francisco" and put on a train. Waiting to meet them in California was Mary Fisher, the boys’ sponsor.

"She was an angel from heaven," says Shelley’s wife, Arlene. "She took in three other boys, too." Shelley still keeps in touch with "Aunt Mary," now 95.

Ruth followed her children to America in the summer of 1944. Shelley says he remembers little about that reunion, other than his mother bringing him a polka dot tie.

With a doctorate in chemistry, Ruth eventually resettled the family in New Jersey, and Shelley had a classically American childhood. He became an Eagle Scout and loved to watch the "Mr. Wizard" TV show, sponsored by General Electric. He decided at an early age that he wanted to work for GE.

With degrees in mechanical and electromechanical engineering, he joined GE and moved up the ranks to vice president. He holds four patents, and spent about half his career with the company working on space exploration projects, the rest at GE Medical Systems.

At GE, he met Arlene, the love of his life for 48 years. The Brookfield couple raised three children — Steven, Robert and Rebecca. Now retired, Shelley keeps active with volunteer work through GE and at his synagogue.

This year, Rebecca nominated her dad for the Ellis Island Medal of Honor, recognizing the spirit and values of immigrants who "took the American dream from just a hope and made it a reality."

At an elaborate awards ceremony at Ellis Island’s Great Hall in May, Shelley accepted the medal. The Shelleys found themselves hobnobbing with stars like Brooke Shields and Frankie Valli.

In her nomination letter, Rebecca writes, "Our father is eternally grateful to the United States for providing a safe haven to his family. America must always be there as a final haven to those who are in imminent danger."

Ellis Island Medal of Honor

As a way to pay homage to the immigrant experience, the National Ethnic Coalition of Organizations created the Ellis Island Medal of Honor in 1986.

Approximately 100 native-born and naturalized U.S. citizens from various ethnic backgrounds are awarded the medal annually. Recipients exemplify outstanding qualities in their personal and professional lives while continuing to preserve their heritage.

A ceremony is held each May on Ellis Island in the great hall where immigrants were once processed. Past medalists include six presidents, as well as Nobel Prize winners and leaders of industry, education, the arts, sports and government.


This story ran in the September 2012 issue of: