‘Quite a lady:’ Family reflects on life of author Shelba Nivens

Published 2:42 pm Thursday, September 17, 2015

Shelba Shelton Nivens waits at the hospital for one of her granddaughters to be born four years ago. (Contributed)

Shelba Shelton Nivens waits at the hospital for one of her granddaughters to be born four years ago. (Contributed)


Sitting in his Shelby County home on a Thursday morning, Ken Nivens lets out a small chuckle as his son Tony Nivens urges him to explain the meaning behind a nickname he gave his wife, Shelba Shelton Nivens, early in their marriage.

“She’s been ‘the young ‘un’ ever since we married,” Ken, 81, says of Shelba, who passed away at age 78 in August. “She was just small. She would say, ‘I’ll have you know dynamite comes in small packages.'”

Tony nods, noting the word “dynamite” captures the essence of his mother’s personality.

Her lithe stature was no reflection of the weight her written words carried in books, plays, magazine articles and newspaper columns she penned throughout her life.

“Because she was small, she put the extra effort out to show if you can do it, I can do it,” Ken said. “Quite a lady.”

Shelba was born in Pelham on July 22, 1937, the oldest of eight children (four girls and four boys). She and Ken met as children when his father was boarding at her grandmother’s house.

Ken gave Shelba a birthday card for her 10th birthday. He pulls out the card, now yellowed with age, that she had kept since the day he gave it to her.

“I saw her off and on different times over the years,” Ken said.

Shelba Nivens in 1955 or 1956, just after marrying Ken Nivens. (Contributed)

Shelba Nivens in 1955 or 1956, just after marrying Ken Nivens. (Contributed)

In 1954, Ken asked Shelba for a date after a swim at Oak Mountain Lake. Their relationship became “serious,” and the couple married in November 1955 after Ken completed basic training for the Army.

More than a month later, Ken was deployed to Japan for about two years. Tony, 60, the couple’s first child, was two weeks old by the time Ken received word overseas that he was born.

After Tony, the couple had three more children: Sandra Ann (deceased), Joni and Kerry.

Since then, eight grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren have arrived.

Ken still lives in the couple’s house just outside of the Chelsea city limits.

Working and writing

Shelba started working in bookkeeping at the Birmingham News as a teenager before she finished high school, Ken said.

Later on, she worked for the Federal Employees Benefit Association and Southern Haulers in Calera, both in bookkeeping and at a furniture business.

But writing was her true passion.

“In elementary school, she wrote poems all the time,” Ken said. “We would be riding to work, and she and I together would be writing a poem for someone. She would come up with a line, and I would throw in something crazy.”

She also began playwriting at a young age and continued into adulthood, writing numerous plays when she and Ken were youth leaders at K-Springs church, now called The Connection.

“The influence they had on that generation (of children) is amazing,” Tony said of his parents.

Shelba’s published works include the books “Early Settlers of the K-Springs/Chelsea Area” and “The Mistaken Heiress,” countless magazine stories, newspaper columns for the Shelby County Reporter and articles for Chelsea newsletters.

“She liked to write about history in Shelby County,” Ken said. “She gets all kinds of praises about the books. Back when she was still in high school, her ambition was to be a published writer and to have a New York editor.”

Eventually, ongoing health issues led Shelba to pull back with her writing. She still wrote sporadically when she could, and Tony picked up some of the slack.

“Other than the kids and him (Ken), that was her life,” Tony said of Shelba’s writing. “She knew that talent was from God, and she needed to use it for him. She’d see his touch in so many things, and you’d go, ‘Oh wow, that is him.'”

Lasting legacy

Writing, in different forms, continues in the Nivens family.

Tony and one of his children write, and Kerry is a news writer and editor at Fox 6, Ken said.

Shelba left her mark in other places. Chelsea’s historical marker at City Hall bears her words.

Many people in the county will remember her, a “little package of dynamite,” for taking time to listen to their stories and write about them, and the area itself.

“She did so much work and research, and interviews with people around here to hear their stories,” Tony said. “She had a huge heart for people.”