My wife Thelma and I first met Shirley and Don Fields in the mid ‘70s. Our son Stuart was a third grade classmate of Mark Fields at Darby Elementary school in Northridge, California. The boys became close friends and we occasionally picnicked with them at a local park when the weather was nice. My wife and I often went to dinner with Don and Shirley. As conversations go, Shirley was the more outgoing of the two, very talkative, with a quick mind and an active imagination. Don – a pharmacist – was pleasant enough, but much quieter and more reserved. We enjoyed their company; they were intelligent and interesting, and fun to be with. Their children, Mark and Lori, were typical middle class kids of that time and place – intelligent, happy, and well-balanced.
As we came to know them better, Shirley’s perspective on life and her outlook on the world became more apparent. Although in general she seemed happy enough, she had frequent bursts of pessimism. Our failure as a society to end poverty and racial injustice rankled her. None of us were practicing Jews, but Shirley’s dissatisfaction was active. She often talked of her hope to find a belief which offered spiritual truth and present-world justice, and it was not long until she found the religion for which she had been searching.
At some point – I believe in 1976 – the Fields family gradually became less available for our usual joint activities. They talked of going up to San Francisco on weekends, and a special bus took them and others who lived in the Los Angeles area up to their “meeting.” When we expressed our growing curiosity, Shirley told us of this new religious group she had found. Shirley had become excited, enthusiastic, and hopeful; and although Don seemed supportive, he didn’t express a strong personal commitment. It was our belief that this new religion was Shirley’s “thing”, and Don was just going along to keep her happy. This was in keeping with their style: Shirley took the initiative, and Don supported her.
It wasn’t long before they seemed to be gone almost every weekend, and they became secretive about their activities. We asked about Peoples Temple and what happened at meetings, but the responses were carefully vague. I don’t recall Shirley ever trying to recruit us, but I suspect she knew we were not the sort of people who would conform to the needs of any highly organized group. She did tell us the members were very diverse, and were from a wide range of ages, ethnic backgrounds, cultures, educational levels and economic groups. They all prayed and wanted to end poverty and social injustice.
In the Winter of 1976 the Fields family announced their intention to move to San Francisco. They sold their house in Northridge, their cars, and all their property. Whatever they didn’t sell they simply gave away. They told us they were giving all their money to Peoples Temple, and would live in housing provided by the organization. They gave us a mailing address – a PO box – but no street address or telephone number.
In the Spring of 1977 we arranged to meet them a couple of times. We met in the Marina on a street along the Palace of Fine Arts. We would walk and talk for a half hour or so, engaging in idle conversation about nothing in particular, but we did ask about their situation.
None of us learned anything. They had apparently all been instructed to avoid discussing Peoples Temple with outsiders.
In June 1977 we moved to Reno. About the same time – July 1977 – the Fields family emigrated to Guyana.. Shirley had mentioned more than once her intention to get passports “in case they begin to persecute Jews here in the United States.” Now we felt we knew the real reason. When the mass suicides occurred, we were positive the Fields were among them. My wife was very angry that Shirley and Don had apparently taken the children to their doom.
I called the FBI in Reno, and agents came out to interview us. We told them everything we knew, but when we called several months later, the FBI would tell us nothing. We felt positive they had died, but I never knew for sure, until I found their names and photos on this website almost 30 years later.
I hope every person who perished at Jonestown has someone who will mourn them and write a remembrance for them.