PETTIS, Shirley Neil

PETTIS, Shirley Neil
Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives


Shirley Pettis, a successful California businesswoman and congressional spouse, won election to the U.S. House of Representatives to succeed her husband, who died in 1975. During two terms in Congress, Pettis sought to continue Jerry Lyle Pettis’s conservative legislative agenda and sponsored an environmental bill that vastly expanded the “wilderness” boundaries of the Joshua Tree National Monument east of Los Angeles.

Shirley Neil McCumber was born in Mountain View, California, on July 12, 1924, to Harold Oliver and Dorothy Susan O’Neil McCumber. Shirley McCumber studied at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan, and at the University of California at Berkeley. After the death of her first husband, Dr. John McNulty, in World War II, she married Jerry Pettis, a World War II flight instructor who would go on to become a self-made millionaire and a professor of economics at Loma Linda University. They raised two children: Peter and Deborah.1 Along with her husband, Shirley Pettis was a founder and manager of the Audio Digest Foundation, a nonprofit affiliate of the California Medical Association which placed abstracts of medical journals and lectures on audiocassette tapes.2 The couple also owned Magnetic Tape Duplicators. In addition, Pettis assisted her husband in the operation of their southern California ranch and, when he was elected to Congress, wrote a regular newspaper column for the San Bernardino Sun-Telegram. Jerry Pettis was elected as a Republican Representative from California to the 90th Congress (1967–1969) and eventually earned a spot on the influential Ways and Means Committee. He served in the House from 1967 until his death on February 14, 1975, in a private aircraft crash in Banning, California.3

Immediately after the accident, friends and associates began encouraging Shirley Pettis to run for her husband’s vacant congressional seat, which included vast tracts of desert and mountain areas east of Los Angeles in San Bernardino and Riverside counties. “‘Shirley, you have to run,’” she recalled them saying to her. “‘You have name recognition and everybody knows you.’” But it was not until her daughter, then 16 years old, and her 19-year-old son encouraged her that Pettis filed for candidacy.4 Campaigning as her late husband’s “working partner,” Pettis won more than 60 percent of the vote against a field of 12 other candidates in the April 29, 1975, special election to fill his seat. “I think the people definitely felt that Jerry Pettis’ philosophy and mind— that government should serve the people and not that people should serve the government—was the philosophy they wanted to continue to represent them,” she said the night of her victory.5 After taking the oath of office on May 6, 1975, she was appointed to the Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs. In 1976 district voters elected Pettis to a full term in the 95th Congress (1977–1979); she defeated Democrat Douglas C. Nilson Jr. with 71 percent of the vote.6 In January 1977, Pettis was assigned to the Committee on Education and Labor and the Committee on International Relations.

During her first term in the House, Pettis used her seat on Interior and Insular Affairs to advance legislation protecting desert lands in her district. She secured wilderness status for nearly half a million acres in the Joshua Tree National Monument, which limited vehicular access and prohibited development. In 1994 Joshua Tree became a national park. Pettis also worked to have the California desert established as a conservation area. During her short tenure in Congress, she took up her late husband’s fight to win federal funding for a cleanup of the Salton Sea, a large lake in her congressional district that was home to migratory birds. The initial interest that Jerry Pettis had raised in such a project had waned. “It kind of dribbled away,” Shirley Pettis recalled. The California Congresswoman also helped to bring the first solar power plant in the nation to her district.7

On nonenvironmental issues during her two terms, she voted with her GOP colleagues to oppose federal funding for abortions and the creation of a federal consumer rights agency, and she proposed cuts to America’s military and economic assistance to South Korea.8 As a Representative with 16 Native-American tribes in her district, Pettis remained a consistent advocate of legislation aimed at improving the health and welfare of Native Americans.

Pettis, who joined the Women’s Caucus in 1977, recalled that her reception as a woman in Congress was initially somewhat rocky. She recalled one elevator ride in which she was chatting with a senior House committee chairman. When the doors opened and they exited, the Congressman turned to Pettis and asked, “So whose secretary did you say you were?” Such experiences led Pettis to encourage young women to enter politics not only to fight gender discrimination but to fulfill their responsibilities as good citizens. “Politics isn’t a far-off thing that happens in a state capital or in Washington,” she once remarked. “It is the road you drive on, the schools you attend; it’s the groceries you buy. It isn’t far away from you. It’s important that everyone become involved in the issues central to their lives.”9

Citing difficulty with keeping in touch with her constituents from the sprawling 27,000-square-mile California district, Pettis declined to run for renomination in 1978.10 From 1980 to 1981, she served as vice president of the Women’s Research and Education Institute in Washington, DC. Following that, Pettis was a member of the Arms Control and Disarmament Commission for two years. President George H. W. Bush appointed her to the Commission on Presidential Scholars, where she served from 1990 to 1992. In 1979 Pettis also began a long term of service on the board of directors of a major insurance company. She married Ben Roberson in February 1988. At the age of 92, Shirley Pettis died on December 30, 2016, in Rancho Mirage, California.11


1Information about Pettis’s first marriage appeared in Douglas Hackleman, “Shirley Pettis: An SDA Representative Remembers,” Adventist Heritage (Summer 1996): 6–10, Journals/AH/AH19960701-V17-02.pdf.

2Gary Libman, “Audiocassette Tapes Have a Way With Words,” 28 December 1987, Los Angeles Times: 1 (“View” section); Tamar Hosansky, “An Ear for CME,” 1 January 2002, MeetingsNet, (link discontinued).

3“Rep. Pettis Dies in Crash of His Plane,” 15 February 1975, Washington Post: A4.

4Interview, Women in Public Service, video (Washington, DC: U.S. Capitol Historical Society, 1998); “Widow Is Running in California to Fill Seat Husband Held,” 28 April 1975, New York Times: 21.

5"Mrs. Pettis Elected to House Vacancy," 1 May 1975, Washington Post: A2; see also, Michael J. Dubin et al., United States Congressional Elections, 1788–1997 (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Publishers, Inc., 1998): 694.

6Office of the Clerk, U.S. House of Representatives, “Election Statistics, 1920 to Present.”

7“Country’s First Solar Power Plant Planned for California Area,” 20 August 1977, Washington Post: D3; “Around the Nation,” 12 August 1977, New York Times: 8.

8Karen Foerstel, Biographical Dictionary of Congressional Women (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1999): 218.

9Women in Public Service, video.

10"The Capitol," 28 January 1978, Washington Post: A3.

11“Former U.S. Congresswoman Shirley Pettis Dies at Age 92,” 5 January 2017, Highland Community News (San Bernardino, CA), https://www.highlandnews. net/news/breaking_news/former-us-congresswoman-shirley-neil-pettis-dies-atage/article_b0e04a2e-d39e-11e6-9c3b-cf7e6f1333fa.html.

View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress

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External Research Collections

Loma Linda University Libraries

Loma Linda, CA
Papers: In the Jerry and Shirley Pettis Papers, 1966-1978, approximately 150 cubic feet. The papers of Shirley Pettis contain personal, business, and congressional papers and correspondence, including photographs, portraits, motion picture film, sound recordings, and memorabilia. A finding aid is available in the repository.

Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study
Schlesinger Library

Cambridge, MA
Papers: In the Candidates for Public Office Campaign Materials, 1966-1976, 0.5 linear foot. Subjects include Shirley N. Pettis.
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Bibliography / Further Reading

"Shirley N. Pettis" in Women in Congress, 1917-2006. Prepared under the direction of the Committee on House Administration by the Office of History & Preservation, U.S. House of Representatives. Washington: Government Printing Office, 2006.

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Committee Assignments

  • House Committee - Education and Labor
  • House Committee - Interior and Insular Affairs
  • House Committee - International Relations
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