Obituary: Antoinette ‘Toni’ Shimer

Traveler, champion of the disadvantaged


Antoinette “Toni” Shimer, a longtime resident of Pilgrim Place, died on April 30, 2016 at the age of 90.

She was born in Rochester, New York on February 11, 1926 to Fidel and Elisabetta Stornelli, Italian immigrant parents who had no formal education and were unable to speak English. Her mother worked tirelessly to mainstream the children early into the American lifestyle. While on welfare for many years, Toni’s parents realized the importance of education and hard work. They left the Italian Catholic church to join the Lake Avenue Baptist Church, first attending the Italian service but quickly changing to the English one. Her father served as the janitor of this church.

The Stornellis’ ambition paid off. Toni’s brother became a distinguished Rochester doctor, while her sister served as dietician for a large California school district. Toni went on to graduate with a degree in psychology from Denison University, from which she later received an Outstanding Alumna Award for distinguished service. Tragically, her mother died while she was in college and never saw her dream of raising three successful, productive children realized.

Toni received a master’s degree in social work from Case Western Reserve University. There she met her future husband Eliot Shimer, who had just returned from three years of missionary service teaching English in post-war Japan. After she said “Yes” to his proposal, he casually mentioned he was planning to return to Japan for full-time social work service. She balked at living in a poor, war-torn country so they agreed secretly to try it for just one year. Mrs. Shimer ended up loving her 22 years of work in Japan and was reluctant to ever leave.

On the Earthpeace Monument website, fellow Pilgrim Constance Waddell shared a story, “Toni Finds Keiko’s Home,” which demonstrates the lengths to which Mrs. Shimer would go to ensure the kids she encountered through her work were placed with caring families.

Ten-year-old Akira and his 13-year-old sister Keiko were among the many children left adrift after World War II when their American soldier fathers returned to the United States. After their mother died, they lived with various aunts and their grandmother but were turned out after their aunts decided Keiko’s mixed race might scare eligible suitors away from their own daughters.

Mrs. Shimer was relieved when she finally found a stable, mixed-race couple willing to provide a home for the siblings. Toni was so delighted she had brought the peace of home to two more children that she said a prayer of gratitude, according to Ms. Waddell’s account. The next morning, however, brought bad news. The new parents had caught Keiko sniffing glue and—despite Toni’s protestations that many abandoned children turned to anything they could find to alleviate their loneliness, they said they would only keep the boy.

“Toni took a saddened and shamed Keiko home with her that day. She told her not to worry. All would be right. Then, she lay awake for hours wondering what she would do,” Ms. Waddell wrote. “In the morning, she realized there was only one more person to turn to. She called the American father. Toni painted the picture with all its pathos. She wanted so much for him to take this little girl, and realize she was his own, that she almost didn’t hear him say,  ‘Why, yes!’ But she quickly saw an opening and rallied and told him that if he did, he must promise to always keep the two children in touch with each other. Again, he simply pledged, ‘Yes.’ And, he kept his promise.”

In 1970, the Shimers returned to the United States where Mrs. Shimer worked in a psychiatric hospital in Wisconsin with clients who were mentally ill or beset by alcoholism. She taught social work at the University of Wisconsin, the University of Illinois and the Ohio State University. Finally, she served for 14 years as executive director of the National Association of Social Workers, Ohio Chapter, leading this organization in finally achieving state licensure.

Toni and Eliot had three children, all born in Japan, who were raised to be bilingual and attended Japanese schools. Julie is a clinical social worker in Hawaii; Bill is a lawyer/businessman and is now teaching business at Northeastern University in Boston; and Linda is a social work clinician/administrator in New York City. Of the three grandchildren, David is a social worker in Oregon, Eliot is a management consultant in Boston and Sophie is a student at Yale medical school.

Over the years, Mr. and Mrs. Shimer enjoyed worldwide travel, much of it in an RV with their three children. They crossed the United States some 35 times and once spent 17 days rafting down the rapids on the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. Their sojourns beyond the continental United States included excursions through Mexico, Alaska and Canada, far north of the Arctic Circle and south to the Panama Canal and Central America. Other adventures included two weeks hiking in Nepal at the base of Mt. Everest as well as to trips to Easter Island and the Galapagos.

Mrs. Shimer enjoyed playing the violin, settling down with a good book, the rich fellowship of living at Pilgrim Place and, especially, working at Pilgrim Place’s Emporium clothing store.

She is survived by her husband of 63 years, Eliot Shimer; by her daughter Juliette “Julie” Shimer of Honolulu, Hawaii; by her son and daughter-in-law, Bill and Barbara Shimer of Belmont, Massachusetts; and by her daughter Linda Shimer of New York. She also leaves her grandchildren, Eliot, Sophie and David.

A Celebration of Life will be held on June 10 at 3:30 p.m. at Decker Hall at Pilgrim Place (665 Avery Road in Claremont), with a reception to follow.


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