If anything is certain, Shelley Unser was a giving woman – particularly to those who needed it most.
The 59-year-old philanthropist and mother of four died on Wednesday from complications of COPD.
“My mother was an amazing woman,” her oldest child, Al Unser III, told the Journal in a phone interview Friday. “She was always one of the first ones to help and volunteer.”
Shelley Unser, whose former husband Al Unser Jr. is a two-time winner of the Indianapolis 500, was a larger-than-life figure in the Albuquerque community whose stretched far beyond the Land of Enchantment with the Cody Unser First Step Foundation.
Established in 1999 and named after Unser’s daughter, Cody Unser – who was left paralyzed by the autoimmune condition Transverse Myelitis – the foundation raises research funds, public awareness and quality of life for those afflicted with all forms of spinal cord-related paralysis.
An avid scuba diver, Shelley Unser established Cody’s Great Scuba Adventure, which uses scuba diving as a therapeutic tool for those suffering from different forms of paralysis.
Al Unser III fondly remember being buddy’d up with his mother during diving excursions in the Bahamas and Cayman Islands.
“My mom would always hum when she was diving,” he said. “You would think there was a whale coming, the way sound travels under water. It’s one of those memories that makes me laugh a little bit.”
Born and raised in Phoenix, Shelley Unser moved to New Mexico in the 1980s and raised all her children here.
Unser III said the outpouring of support from the community is very appreciated and asked, in lieu of flowers, that donations be made to Cody Unser First Step foundation to “further assist Unser’s vision of helping people.”
“It’s been a very large shock for us,” he said, adding his mother died suddenly from lung failure. “My mom was a smoker and was working on quitting – but it just didn’t happen soon enough.”