James Harold Shepherd Sr., co-founder of the Shepherd Center in Buckhead, died peacefully Monday at age 90 following a long illness.
A fourth-generation Atlantan, he was the son of Mabel Plunkett and William Clyde Shepherd. He was the younger of six children: Clyde, Charles, Elizabeth Knox Green, Margaret Yates (Dan) and Dan Shepherd. He was also predeceased by his daughter, Dana.
He lived a long and interesting life. At age 14, his father put a pistol on the seat and told him to drive to Tallulah, Louisiana, and work on a levee they were building. He wanted to be a race car driver, but his father said no. He raced around town and the legendary bootlegger, Legs Law, called him and said he heard of him and would come down and race him. Harold said it was the only race he ever lost.
He soloed at age 15 in a single-engine Piper Cub with no radio. He could land on the grass at Atlanta Airport if they gave him a green light; a red light meant go around!
As young men, Harold and his brothers started Shepherd Construction Co. Over the past six decades, Harold and his family members oversaw construction of hundreds of miles of interstate highways in Georgia and several surrounding states, as well as thousands of miles of city and county streets.
It was once said that no one knew more about an asphalt plant in Georgia than Harold Shepherd. Harold started paving operations in 1949 and managed 15 asphalt plants across Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina. He holds a patent on the rumble roller, which marks the pavement edge on roads, and helped develop two asphalt terminals, which store liquid asphalt. He built all but one section of Interstate 95 in Georgia.
Construction wasn’t Harold’s only family endeavor. Along with his wife, Alana Shepherd, their son, James, and David F. Apple Jr., M.D., Harold founded Shepherd Center in 1975. The idea for the center formed after James sustained a spinal cord injury in a bodysurfing accident in 1973. For James’ initial recovery, the family had to seek treatment far from Atlanta because there was a lack of rehabilitation care options in the Southeast.
Frustrated, but determined, the Shepherds devoted themselves to creating a rehabilitation center for people with spinal cord injuries closer to home and to help others in the region. Harold’s work in the business world proved to be quite instrumental in the center’s launch.
His friendship with legendary real estate developer Scott Hudgens enabled the hospital to acquire the five acres on Peachtree Road for $800,000.
“His family and business connections played a huge role in starting Shepherd Center and in saving my dad’s life,” Jamie Shepherd, Harold’s grandson and son of James, said in a news release. “Without those connections and his relationships, Shepherd Center might not be here.”
Remembered as a natural storyteller and somewhat of an unofficial Shepherd Center historian, Harold was a founding board member at the center and still went there almost every day before his passing.
“I have known Harold since 1984, and he is a man that I have such respect for,” Sarah Morrison, PT, MBA, MHA, the center’s president and CEO, said in a news release. “He truly was one of the best storytellers I know – detailed stories that were peppered with humor. He was also one of the nicest men I know. He would always come into my office and ask what he could do for the staff. He wanted to make sure that all his efforts and donations were going to make an impact on the staff. He continually recognized the great work the staff does on a daily basis.”
For all his accomplishments, he considered building the center with his family to be his finest.
“He wanted to be here, talk to people, to be around the hospital and watch as it grew,” Julie Shepherd, Harold’s granddaughter, who is a case manager at the center, said in a news release. “He often talked about how proud he was of Shepherd Center. His construction career had been rewarding in one way, but he was even prouder of what they’d done here (at the hospital) and the lives they’d changed.”
Sara Chapman, longtime friend of the Shepherd family and corporate secretary of the center’s board of directors, began volunteering there in 1980.
“He was such a kind and generous man who always gave everyone else credit for the success of Shepherd Center,” she said in a news release. “He cared so deeply about sharing the passion he had for Shepherd Center, and he always had a great story to tell. I will always remember him at Derby Day, which he absolutely loved – and when the Paralympics were in Atlanta, how proud he was to lift that torch and bring hope to this community. I will miss him terribly.”
Just before Harold’s 90th birthday in April, the Georgia General Assembly unanimously approved a resolution to designate a section of Peachtree Road in Buckhead in his honor. In July, the portion of Peachtree Road from Peachtree Battle Avenue to Brookwood Station – the very same slice of road that is home to Shepherd Center – was honorarily designated J. Harold Shepherd Parkway.
Harold was recognized with several awards for service and dedication – including the American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation’s Distinguished Public Service Award, the American College of Physicians’ Edward R. Loveland Memorial Award for a Distinguished Contribution in the Health Field, Atlanta Business Chronicle’s Healthcare Heroes Award, Outstanding Service to Georgia’s Handicapped Citizens Award, Hagar & Jay’s Award from Delta Air Lines for servant leadership, the Tiffany Blue Angel Award and the Christopher Reeve Spirit of Courage Award. He also received an honorary doctorate of laws from the University of Georgia in 2011. But, you never heard Harold boast.
Though what started as a six-bed rehabilitation unit is now a world-renowned, 152-bed research and rehabilitation facility spread across three campuses, Harold’s family members say his greatest influence has been on the feeling people get while at Shepherd Center.
Survivors include: his wife, Alana Smith Shepherd; his sons: James H. Shepherd Jr. and Thomas C. Shepherd; his grandchildren: Julie Shepherd, James H. Shepherd III (Sarah) and Thomas C. Shepherd Jr.; and his great-grandchildren: James Harold Shepherd IV, Josephine Shepherd, Virginia Shepherd and Annie Shepherd.
A memorial service will be held Thursday at 2:30 p.m. at Peachtree Presbyterian Church, 3434 Roswell Road in Buckhead, with a reception following in the fellowship hall. In lieu of flowers, a gift to Shepherd Center Foundation, 2020 Peachtree Road, Atlanta, Georgia, 30309, would make his heart sing. You may give online at shepherd.org/give.