The Inside Rail

The obituary reads two lines. 

Laura Thiel Shull, 56, of Camden, died Thursday, February 18, 2021. Arrangements will be announced by Kornegay Funeral Home, Camden Chapel.

I guess I’ll try to fill in the rest. Maybe she’d want me to, maybe she wouldn’t. 

A long and complicated life comes to a long and agonizing end. I can’t make sense of it. I have trouble making sense of her life and I can’t make sense of her death. Laura had a heart of gold, but it slowly, steadily drifted away, from her family, from her friends, from her causes, from her dreams. Parents gone. Brother on his own, somewhere. She was a friend of mine, a friend of yours, she adored our game, loved her town. She was the big little guy, supporting the underdog, rooting for the obscure, the challenged, the debauched, the flawed. 

Born and raised in Camden, Laura served on the NSA board of directors, served as president of SOTA, served as a longtime board member of the Carolina Cup and about every other board you can think of from equine to educational. She gave back, a philanthropist, a quiet, determined giver.

She was steeplechasing’s first slum lord, renting fixer-uppers on Mill, Chestnut, Haile to all the southbound steeplechase horsemen in Camden. Fair and straight, but strict, everybody signed a lease with Laura. Don’t be late with that rent check, either. 

She was an on-call, untrained counselor for a woman crisis hotline in the 90s. She used to take calls in the middle of the night – always Saturday night – and help out strangers, come back, bleary eyed and tired, but satisfied that she had tried, that she had made a difference.

She used to get a summer job waitressing at Chi-Chi’s. Worth more than the restaurant, Laura waited tables every summer when she and her first husband, Toby Edwards, would summer at Delaware Park. Active. She was always active, involved, always moving. Renting houses, selling fly sprayers for her dad, waiting tables, running a gift shop, a restaurant, leaping to action whenever a worthy cause arose. 

She won the flat race at Camden in 1994. As a jockey. In her dad’s silks, man was she proud. Yeah, her big horse, Message Pad, a front-running classic over the Neilson sisters. She said I misquoted her in Steeplechase Times. I probably did. 

Horses, dogs, cats, people…the strayer the better. 

She was enigmatic then, enigmatic all the way. Loved Mountain Dew and NASCAR. Smoked too much. Drank too much. Suffered through long, agonizing deaths of her mother, Judy, and her father, Dale. They didn’t want services, I wish they did. We should have been there for her, through those troubled times, I always thought that added to her demise. 

Her dad, the one-and-only inventor and entrepreneur, was a brilliant marketer, a born salesman, he gave his daughter a horse named Timely Encounter. He became her favorite – fast. She was hooked from there. He had upset the 1988 Temple Gwathmey, the longest shot on the board, Graham Alcock feathered in the feathery 137 pounds, there to fill the race, back when it was at Belmont Park and mattered that it filled. Two seasons later, the overachiever ran in Laura’s silks, a little pink to spice up the blue and black of her dad. 

The son of Northfields, who made his debut at Hialeah in 1986, won an allowance at Hard Scuffle in 1989, a handicap at Radnor in 1990, the Continental Cup at the Virginia Gold Cup in 1992, ran in the Carolina Cup five consecutive times, earning checks up and down the long road of steeplechasing back when it wound its way through places like Tanglewood and Marengo, Brookhill and Stoneybrook. Laura was there, at all of them. The clerk of scales at Camden, the TV host at Saratoga, Catherine French’s fill-in photographer at double meets. She was the one who picked up your tack bag and car keys and met you at Kershaw County Hospital or Aiken Regional Medical Center, giving you a bed for as long as you needed it, until whenever you remembered your name again and could head on home. 

Always with a smile and a good dose of reality. I cried on her shoulder a few times. She cried on mine. 

As Bill Price said a few days ago, “She was always thoughtful and reasonable with her answers.”

We lost her the last few years, sadly, she drifted away from me, you, all of us. Our lunches at the Everyday Gourmet became distant memories. I couldn’t reach her. Maybe I didn’t try hard enough. Alcohol took over, took her away from us. I don’t know if I should say that, don’t know if she would want me to say that, but I also know she always played it straight with me. Telling me when I was wrong when I thought I was right. Right when I thought I was wrong. 

They called her Tiny. She was anything but to her friends, her causes. Goodbye, my friend, our friend. Goodbye. 

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