Farewell to John Sheally

Published 1:50 pm Friday, February 16, 2024

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photojournalist, car enthusiast, family man.

Suffolk Living is saying farewell to an esteemed photojournalist and a much-beloved friend. Photojournalist John H. Sheally II passed away at the age of 80 on Saturday, Dec. 2. A longtime contributor to Suffolk Living, the magazine was just the tip of the iceberg of the achievements that Sheally received during his life.

Born in Manchester, New Hampshire, Sheally received the gift of a Brownie camera at just eight years old, setting him on a lifetime path of capturing the world around him. A graduate of Hopewell High School where he took photos for the school’s newspaper, he served as an aerial photographer during his five-year enlistment in the U.S. Navy. Following his service, Sheally saw a photojournalism career with the Progress-Index in Petersburg covering local news as well as political news in Richmond. This soon led to a career with the Virginian-Pilot, where he and his lens captured memories in both the southeastern Virginia and North Carolina areas. Likewise, along with various feature stories for the Virginian-Pilot, Sheally shot for at least 20 regional and national magazines, including the National Geographic. Some of the profiles that Sheally shot photos for include John A. Walker, the U.S. Naval Officer convicted of espionage, Author James McBride, Portsmouth Artist J. Robert Burnell as well as NASCAR Hall of Famers Wendell Scott and Junior Johnson and Former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, among many others. Alongside his photography work, Sheally was an avid car enthusiast, a husband to his wife Donna Shelton for 52 years, and a father.

Fellow colleagues, lifelong friends and Sheally’s daughter shared their memories of the photojournalist and how he impacted each of their lives. Journalist and Writer Phyllis Speidell reflected on her 30-year business partnership and friendship with Sheally after meeting him at the Virginian-Pilot in the early 1990s. Reminiscing about his smile, cowboy boots and southern drawl, Speidell talked about how natural it was working with Sheally due to their “similar personalities’” and “similar views on ethics.”

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“We both had this wonderful sense of curiosity, and we would go out to do a job and come back with three more story ideas, and everything just clicked and I think when you’re lucky enough to find someone like that and you can work together so beautifully and the results are so good, it’s just really, really fortunate,” Speidell said. “He still shot for a lot of the other writers in the office and I occasionally used a different photographer, but every chance we had, we worked together because we knew it was just going to go well.”

Following 25+ years of working at the Virginian-Pilot, both Sheally and Speidell continued their business partnership in a variety of projects, including magazine contributions (Suffolk Living, Richmond Magazine, Virginia Living), both commercial and promotional projects, and books for both private clients and non-profits. 

Graphic Designer Chad Casey talked about working with Sheally for over 10 years on their various book projects.

“John and Phyllis would go out on their adventures and capture photographs and interviews of people who were related to the book they were setting out to create. They would form a narrative and a relationship with the organization or people they were trying to memorialize in book form,” Casey said. “Once they were ready, they would let myself and one of two editors we worked with over the years, Pamela Koch and Phil Bristol, know the materials were ready.”

While noting that his photography was “always on point,” Casey reflected on the man behind the lens.

“John had a huge personality with lots of stories that I enjoyed hearing. You’d think some of these can’t be true, but sure enough, he had the photos of all of his stories to back it up. From racing cars to his adventures taking shots of musicians, he was larger than life to me,” Casey said. “I don’t think I’ll ever meet a person who had such a huge amount of experience and cool stories again. Those people like him don’t come around often and I’ll truly miss being around him.”

Known for his love for Morgan sports cars, Sheally was a frequent participant in racing and auto-cross competitions. Sheally was his own mechanic and kept his collection of Morgan cars in top condition. Tim Hund, a longtime friend of Sheally and fellow car enthusiast, says that they met in the early 1970s while Hund was a college student at Christopher Newport University. An owner of a Triumph TR4 sports car, Hund found out about a man who was autocrossing, a timed racing competition where racers individually drive through traffic cone-made courses for the quickest time.

“I said ‘Man, that’d be kind of neat to find this out’ and turns out John was autocrossing in an event out in Virginia Beach. [I] went out there and John was autocrossing. He was a very, very avid autocrosser and he was autocrossing a Triumph just like I was driving. When his time was finished, I went over to introduce myself and we’re like best friends instantly from then on,” Hund said. “We’re a lot alike in a lot of ways, we both love cars, we both love English cars, we both love racing and anything competitive, and I just can’t remember a time that we weren’t the closest of friends.”

Noting both their competitive natures, Hund says that as early friends they decided to stay in their lanes and not compete against each other in any major competitions.

“We made a gentleman’s agreement never to do it. That’s what kept our relationship very healthy I’m sure,” Hund said. 

Along with his love for cars, Sheally enjoyed different music genres (big band, country, rock and roll, classical) and had a love for animals, with his photojournalism skills helping abandoned dogs to find new homes. However, his biggest love was the love for his family. Kate Smellie, Sheally’s daughter shared memories of her father, humorously reflecting that growing up with her father “was always exciting and an adventure.”

“My dad was always very fun, always laughing, always smiling. Such an extroverted people person. Everywhere I went from a little girl until I got older and even married, if I’d go off with him anywhere, there wasn’t somebody that he didn’t know,” Smellie said.

Smellie says she would travel to different places with her father as he went out to race his cars.

“A couple days before his races, he’s out there working on the car in the driveway and revving the cars up at like midnight and the neighbors are getting upset,” she said with a laugh. “Other than that, he was a very big family man. … He worked at the Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk for the majority of my life, that I remember and sometimes he had to travel for the newspaper, but other than that, he was home every night. Just lots of fun memories, he always likes to joke around and make you laugh. His smile and what I remember the most. His smile and his laugh. He liked to have fun.”

Smellie says that Sheally was a “very strong, determined man” regardless of his work as a photojournalist, his passion for cars, or his love for his family. What Smellie hopes people will remember about her father is his love of life and how much he loved people.

“There wasn’t a person that he met that he did not care for. He saw the good in everybody,” she said. “And one of his famous things that I always remember, [if you] did something, his famous words were ‘You did good.’ He would say that to us, he would say that to other people and he was always just trying to encourage people. When he did, his words were very short and sweet and to the point trying to lift somebody up, and he was very positive.”

Sheally was laid to rest with military honors at Albert G. Horton, Jr. Veterans Cemetery on Friday, Dec. 15.