Editor’s Note: Sheila Holzworth ’85 passed away March 29 due to complications from cancer. The loss of this courageous, strong and good-humored woman is a loss to the entire Central community. Read more of her inspiring story below.
“Whenever it’s a sunny blue day and I’m gone—if I’m gone—and you look up, the biggest cloud will
be mine,” says Sheila Holzworth ’85. “Mine and all my friends’.”
Those are difficult words to say for a woman who has already been through so much in her life, but she says them with a smile—and a stubbornness that they’re not really going to come true, despite the doctors’ prognoses.
Sheila has always been rebellious—had an off-color sense of humor, a competitive edge. It’s what led her to ride horses through the deep waters of Beaver Creek when she was eight years old. It’s what made her hang her roommate’s lingerie out the window of the Alpha Delta Epsilon house at Central. It’s what gave Sheila the courage to climb Mount Rainier in Washington state as a blind 19-year-old college student. And it is giving her the energy to keep living life to the fullest right now—buying a new puppy, riding a jet ski, getting thrown off a horse and breaking seven ribs—even though she has been diagnosed with serious adenocarcinoma, a type of cancer.
A Sighted World
Sheila grew up in northern Des Moines, right on the edge of the countryside, where her parents own 10 acres. She describes herself and her five siblings as “pretty wild,” running through the ravines and woods with their hunting dogs and horses.
But the household was disciplined, as well. When Sheila was blinded at age 10 in a freak accident caused by orthodontic equipment, she was expected to keep up with her chores—scooping out dog kennels and cooking dinner on Thursday nights. After spending several weeks in the hospital, she was so eager to get home that blindness didn’t even seem a burden.
“Kids are very resilient,” says Sheila. “I never remember this major bump in the road or this major tragedy. My parents had six kids; they couldn’t treat me different. My dad told me, ‘You live in a sighted world, sweetheart, so you need to act like it.’”
Sheila’s parents hired resource teachers to help her use her cane and teach her to read Braille. But she admits that her grades weren’t the best. She was accepted to Central on the condition that she attend the Skills Center (equivalent to today’s Student Support Services) three nights a week for tutoring. Sheila credits the center with teaching her how to effectively manage her time.
It’s true that Sheila’s natural rebellious streak continued at Central—she would stop by Jaarsma Bakery with friends at 4 a.m. for broken pieces of pastries—but she also settled down and discovered better ways to use her competitive nature.
“I was very competitive before I was probably even born,” says Sheila. At Central, she became president of the Gator Ski Club, which traveled around snow skiing. She then began competitive snow skiing and water skiing. She won gold medals and set world records for slalom and downhill skiing at the U.S. Association for Blind Athletes national competition and the 1984 Blind Olympics.
It Takes a Campus
Although taking on steep slopes was par for the course, college classes were a bit tougher. Sheila needed someone to read aloud from textbooks and take notes for her in class. So she hired Donna De Heer, a wife and mother who lived on a farm outside Pella. Donna was a pillar of support for Sheila during her five years at Central. (She took an extra year because of her competitive skiing). After graduation, Donna remained a close friend as well as Sheila’s personal assistant until she passed away in 1992, from the same type of cancer Sheila has now.
In fact, everyone at Central was respectful and supportive of Sheila’s academic efforts. The post office would personally deliver her mail so she wouldn’t have to deal with the identical mail boxes. Facilities planted a bush just so she knew where to turn on the sidewalk to get to her townhouse. The bookstore sent her textbooks to the Iowa Department for the Blind to be transferred into Braille.
Sheila’s roommate Tammy Wilson Evans ’84 often traveled with her to competitions. The two have remained close since graduation. “There wasn’t anything that she didn’t want to do or that she didn’t try to do,” says Tammy. “Nobody was ever going to tell her, ‘No, you can’t do that.’”
Certainly, nobody was going to tell Sheila she couldn’t climb the 14,410-foot summit of Mount Rainier. In 1981, as part of a team of nine physically challenged climbers, and in honor of the International Year of Disabled Persons, Sheila became the first blind woman to scale the mountain.
“It was cold. It was stressful. It was the most grueling, athletic thing I’ve ever done. But it was also one of the best experiences of my life.”
Sheila and another climber snuck up a beer that exploded in their faces. But it was a beautiful, sunny day at the summit, and Sheila was elated. Until the news came that it was time to start down.
“I’m thinking to myself, ‘Get down!? My goal was to get up here! You’re not helicoptering us down?’”
The achievement inspired thousands of disabled people. “It really opened up their eyes to realize they could do things if they could push themselves, get out, get a little help,” says Sheila.
Sheila has continued to inspire thousands in her work as a motivational speaker at events across the country. She also worked at Principal Financial Group for 24 years as a trainer and development leader.
Since her mother passed away four years ago, Sheila’s father, Dr. Paul Holzworth, is often over for dinner. The two fish every Wednesday during the summer, watch sporting events on TV and putt around the pasture on his days off.
Sheila loves her two dogs and her two horses, but she credits her “three F’s”—her friends, faith and father—with sustaining her through hard times, including depression.
Right now might be the hardest yet. Sheila’s cancer has metastasized, and the pain is harsh. The doctors don’t expect her to live much longer, but Sheila doesn’t think she will die from cancer.
“Because I am blind, I am very intuitive. God doesn’t want me in heaven doing nothing. He wants me down here being a bad influence on everyone and harassing people,” Sheila jokes.
Still, Sheila is prepared for the moment, should it come. And she’s looking forward to one thing. “The only good thing about going to heaven is that I’ll be able to see,” she says. “You go to heaven and you are whole. I will probably look at myself and say ‘Holy Cow! Why didn’t they tell me to comb my hair?’”