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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.