Tyler professor Paul Sheriff is producing a documentary addressing the loss of his family that highlights his sister’s gymnastics career.
“Until I started this project I was not even able to talk to my wife about the accident,” Paul Sheriff said.
Forty-seven years after losing his sister, mother and father in a plane crash, Sheriff, a graphic design professor at Tyler School of Art, is revealing his life story to all in a documentary he is working on called “WorkOut.”
“If I don’t talk about it, it is going to be buried away forever,” he said.
“WorkOut” is based on the gymnastic career of his sister, Hali Sheriff, who died in a plane crash with coach and mother, Virginia Sheriff and father, the Rev. Hal Sheriff.
Expected to compete in the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, Hali’s career came to an end when the small airplane piloted by her father crashed while returning from a gymnastics exhibition in Cedar Rapids, Iowa in 1966. Sheriff was 10 years old at the time of the crash.
“It would forever change the way I looked at life and the way I live in the present,” he said. “I am aware the whole game can change at a drop of the hat.”
Sheriff trained with his older sister in Blue Mound Gymnastics Club, a gymnastics team started by their mother, Ginny, in a gym attached to Blue Mound United Methodist where their father preached, in Blue Mound, Ill.
“Within four years of my mom creating the team, Blue Mound became the best Amateur Athletic Union team in the country, all because of Hali,” Sheriff said.
Hali would work out three hours a day, six times a week, Sheriff said. At 14-years-old, Hali was arguably the best female gymnast in the world. Months before Hali died, she performed several times in England.
After seeing her skill, the English presented Hali’s mother with a plaque that had the inscription, “Thanks for bringing us Hali, the finest women’s gymnast we have ever seen.”
“It took 10 years for the world to get up to her level in gymnastics,” Sheriff said of his sister’s skill at such a young age.
By contrast, it took 47 years for Sheriff to feel comfortable sharing his story. The project began in Fall 2007 as a sabbatical research project.
“The documentary is a way for me to work out what feelings had been repressed for so long,” Sheriff said. “While focusing on the sport of gymnastics and the achievements of my sister and mother, I hope to be able to understand the twists and turns in my own life.”
Sequences of interviews will be juxtaposed with vintage images, gathered historical text and metaphorical images, which will conjure past emotions and allow viewers to become a part of Sheriff’s journey. The documentary also addresses athletic competition as a philosophy of life, with its effects on the individual athlete.
“The intent of the film is to find some commonality shared by us all when addressing the past and honoring is inescapable presence in our daily lives,” Sheriff said.
Temple has donated approximately $14,000 for the film through grants from the dean and stipends for the sabbatical research project. Despite donations from other personal donors and Temple, Sheriff is still seeking funds to finish production.
Film and media arts professor Eran Preis, who was nominated for an Academy Award in 1984, and Allan Barber have been involved in the origins of the project and have given consultation on the project. The collaborative relationship will continue through all phases of the production: the narrative, principal photography, editing and revision.
Depending on funding, the group hopes to finish the project in 2012. Upon completion, Sheriff and his collaborators will enter the film in film festivals and entertain other appropriate venues. The trailer, which was completed in 2011, is currently hosted on the film’s website.
“I hope the documentary will be able to raise money so I can start a scholarship in my sister’s name for women gymnasts,” Sheriff said.
When asked about the goals of “WorkOut,” Sheriff said, “I just want to get the story out there that has been repressed all along.”
Joseph Schaefer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.