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THE NOVASCOTIAN: For the love of the dance
Brendon McGinn recalls the wake held late last year for his sister, Shirley Anne McGinn, as being a moving tribute to a person who had a profound impact on many people, most notably students.
Brendon, 83, of Charlottetown says at least every second person had a special anecdote on how Shirley made a true difference in one life after another as a caring teacher and later as a tireless volunteer.
“They would say ‘Shirley was so helpful to our family', " he says.
Brendon believes his sister was put on this earth to help others succeed in the face of adversity.
He says Shirley, who was the fourth of 10 children (including two who died in infancy), had a modest upbringing on a mixed farm in Emyvale.
Brendon says his sister was not the outdoors type and was not looked to for rolling up her sleeves to do farm chores.
Rather, Shirley, who was a terrific cook, was quick to help her mother around the house.
She also helped her siblings with school work – a desire and talent that seemed to come naturally to her.
Brendon says he likely would not have made his way through high school and university without the guidance of his older sister.
“She was a teacher from the day she was born, really,’’ he says.
Shirley did not wait long before becoming an actual teacher.
Brendon says his sister was only 16 or 17 when she started to teach in a one-room school in the Kensington area, setting course on a remarkable 43-year career.
In being named one of the 2010 recipients of the Senior Islander of the Year Award in recognition of the unique role she played in enhancing community and family life, she was described as a “highly regarded and respected’’ elementary school teacher.
When she retired after her lengthy run as an educator, she simply carried on helping students on her own dime.
“The day she quit teaching she just kept on teaching in a non-paying role,’’ says Brendon.
Shirley volunteered at Parkdale Elementary School. She was also a Learning for Literacy volunteer at West Kent School.
In addition, she was a welcome, familiar presence at Prince Street School for many years of volunteering.
Prince Street teacher Aletha Coady says Shirley would arrive at the school around 7:15 a.m. to prepare breakfast for students and stay until close to noon to help students with learning and life.
“She would spend time with them and make them feel good,’’ says Coady.
“Well, she just loved giving them extra attention. She just loved kids…kids that she was concerned about, she would go over and above.’’
“The biggest thing that I and many others saw in her was that she reached out to the children that maybe didn’t have an older sibling or a parent to really love them ...She listened to them, helped them with their studies, taught them about life.’’
After her morning at school, Shirley would walk – she walked everywhere – to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital for, naturally, more volunteer work, which eventually tallied over 6,000 hours at the hospital.
Shirley would do about two shifts a week at the QEH manning the information desk, says Janice Morrison, volunteer services department manager at the hospital.
For many years prior to the desk (non-paying) job at the QEH, Shirley would rock babies in the pediatric unit.
Morrison says the good teaching qualities in Shirley would surface when she helped guide young volunteers at the hospital.
“All the youth just had the greatest respect for her,’’ she says.
“I think it was just her genuine interest in seeing people succeed…her genuine interest in other people.’’
Morrison says a void is felt by the absence of Shirley, who died Dec. 8, 2018, just shy of her 87th birthday.
Brendon wanted to pay special tribute to his sister.
He called Prince Street School several months after Shirley died, asking if there was something the school really needed.
There was: a dishwasher for the breakfast program that Shirley dove into for years as a dedicated volunteer.
Brendon had the school pick out a suitable machine. He went to the store, paid for the dishwasher and had it delivered to the school. Northumberland Ferries Ltd. topped off that nice gift with a donation of plates, bowls, cutlery and cups.
“It was really nice for Brendon and (his wife), Joan, to make that donation in Shirley’s name,’’ says Coady.
Brendon struggles to explain the origin of so much goodness in his sister.
“Some people…that is their role in life,’’ he says.
“It is their mission. It is hard to know where it comes from.’’
He says Shirley, who was a member of the Catholic Women’s League at Holy Redeemer Parish and a member of St. Vincent de Paul Society, was a deeply spiritual person.
He believes Shirley, who never married and did not have any children, was set to quietly go about simply helping people, especially children, all her life.
“The biggest thing that I and many others saw in her was that she reached out to the children that maybe didn’t have an older sibling or a parent to really love them and Shirley filled that role…she really filled that need in their life,’’ says Brendon.
“She listened to them, helped them with their studies, taught them about life.’’