Sherman Riggsbee: Boosting Spirits Every Day

Media contact: Stephanie Mahin, (919) 966-2860,

Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2013

Written by Elizabeth Swaringen for UNC Health Care

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – These days, Sherman Riggsbee does his best work after 4 p.m., Sunday through Thursday.

Those are the evenings—and nights—the retired award-winning manager in the Triangle hotel industry works as resident manager at SECU Family House, the 40-bedroom hospital hospitality house minutes from UNC Hospitals that provides comfortable, convenient and affordable housing for seriously ill adult patients and their family member caregivers.

While different duos of volunteers escort guests to their rooms and orient them to Family House, it’s Sherman, a youthful 66, who checks in guests and is the constant greeter, listener, encourager and human Teddy bear when residents arrive weary after long days of appointments, tests and treatments or worriedly sitting at the bedside of a seriously ill loved one.

“Family House is the true meaning of the place,” Sherman—and everybody knows him as Sherman—said. “You might come here as an individual, but when you leave you are forever a part of this family. And for me, it’s never like coming to work.”

For Sherman, life’s always been about family—his own by blood and those drawn to him and he to them by choice.

A Chatham County native, Sherman grew up in a household of two hard-working parents who never had the opportunity for formal education, two brothers and a sister.

“We loved each other, and we knew it,” he said. “We sat at the table together for meals and talked and discussed things. We respected privacy, but anything was fair game.”

Sherman and his wife, Jean, created that same supportive environment for their two daughters and a son. Education was key, and all three children graduated from college with honors. “We always did things as a family, and we still do,” he said.

Sherman’s family by choice grew exponentially through the years. For 22 years he coached Little League sports teams, especially drawn to youngsters who clearly needed a compassionate, disciplined role model.

“Bad kids aren’t born,” he said. “They are created by bad families and bad situations. Working with them made me a better father.”

And Sherman knows he’s where he’s supposed to be, doing what he’s doing for a reason: “I don’t want anyone to go through what I’ve gone through,” he said.

In 2003, Sherman, a diabetic, suffered a major stroke that left him paralyzed and unable to walk or talk. At all. Through prayer, willpower, intensive therapy and timely and excellent care at UNC Hospitals, he recovered and founded a stroke support group that celebrates its 10th anniversary this year.

“When I started talking again after my stroke, I couldn’t stop,” Sherman said, laughing at the truth. “I am a talker, but it’s also about listening to people—really hearing them—and talking about how they can get better, with their health and with who they are as people. People appreciate that level of caring, and you have to be a caring individual to do a good job here.”

But beyond his own health scare and its teachings, life events involving two loves of his life reinforce for Sherman how precious life is.

His beloved Jean died at age 42 from Huntington’s disease, a neurodegenerative genetic disorder that affects muscle coordination and leads to cognitive decline and psychiatric problems. He cared for her at home during the six years of her illness. Thankfully, none of his children, whom he raised as a single parent while working at least two jobs, has inherited the disorder.

“After her diagnosis, Jean thought I was going to leave her, but I took my vows seriously,” he said. “I made sure she was never alone. I have such admiration for people who are supportive of their spouses. I’m privileged to witness that every day at Family House.”

Tragedy struck again when Sherman’s his first grandchild, Amber, 7, died in a car accident in 2001. A second granddaughter, now 3, is the light of the Riggsbee family’s life.

“Because of these life events, I think that’s why I do so well here at Family House,” Sherman said. “Many times I’ve asked God ‘Why spare me?’ and the answer I get is ‘I had work for you to do.’ I’m doing it now.”

Sherman’s favorite place at Family House is the communal kitchen and dining room where he joins guests over meals or just for coffee. While the food prepared by an army of volunteers is excellent and a coffee cup is a common companion, it’s the lure of continuing those conversations that started at check-in that brings Sherman to the table.

“I want to make sure they know I’m here for them so they don’t have to worry about anything but getting better,” Sherman said. “You develop trusting relationships by talking. And, yes, I miss them when they leave.”

Beyond the contact with guests, the camaraderie with Family House staff is a secondary reason Sherman loves his work.

“We all get along and we have a good time as we make sure our guests are well cared for,” said Sherman, the lone male among the paid staff. “I think at my heart I really am my mother. I got my compassion from my own mother and my strength from my father. And thankfully I had the opportunity to tell them that and thank them before I told them both good-bye for the last time.”

And Sherman gets his own bounty of thanks and good-bye hugs from Family House guests.

“We have guests who have been here for months, and get the all-clear late morning to head home a day or so earlier than expected,” said Janice Ross, interim executive director of SECU Family House. “Naturally, they’re eager to get back to their own space, but they hang around until Sherman gets here to hug his neck and thank him. Everybody loves Sherman.”