By Mike Williscraft
There are pillars of the community and then there are those who comprise the base on which those pillars stand.
The Honourable Shirley Martin was a big portion of the base on which Niagara West is formed.
Shirley died last Thursday, Sept. 16, 21 days after her husband of 69 years, Jack, after a long battle with cancer.
While she was many things to many people, in her public life Shirley was most noted as a highly respected Member of Parliament for Lincoln, being elected two times, serving nine years during which she served in Cabinet with responsibilities that included Transportation and Indigenous Affairs.
Whether one was a farmer, a teacher, an event volunteer or the Prime Minister of Canada, Shirley was known for always being a positive influence and someone ready to roll up her sleeves and get to work.
This left an impression on all who knew her. even the most influential people in the nation.
“What attracted me most, and the reason I decided to put her in the Cabinet, was she was such a people person,” said former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney.
“She knew everything that was going on in her Riding and her community but most of all she was a very valued friend and a very effective Member of Parliament.”
In her work life, Shirley spend 36 years at Bell Canada and helped on the family’s Winona fruit farm, but her superior people skills allowed her to command a presence in any situation.
“Shirley knew how to handle herself in the House of Commons, in Caucus and around the Cabinet table,” said Mr. Mulroney.
“She always put others first. She was a great person and superb member of parliament as well as a great advisor to me, Cabinet and elsewhere.”
“I spoke to her in the Spring. She was ill. This is a major loss for her family, friends and her former constituents.”
The confidence Mr. Mulroney and others placed in Martin set her on a path which led to her also serving as a member of the Canadian delegation to the United Nations.
Shirley was a tireless worker who supported many causes which impacted the entire Niagara West community, such as West Lincoln Memorial Hospital, McNally House Hospice and Grimsby Museum to name a few.
McNally, though, was a key focus of her time and attention being an integral part of the hospice care facility’s creation and development from the start.
“In 2006, Shirley joined the board of directors as the Chair of Capital Campaign leading the way in raising the $1.6 million needed to see McNally House Hospice open its doors in 2008,” said McNally executive director Pamela Blackwood.
“After chairing the fundraising campaign, Shirley became the Board Chair, taking over from our inaugural chair, Denise Marshall as she stepped into her role as medical director.”
For those efforts, Shirley was nominated by McNally House and was proudly awarded the June Callwood Outstanding Volunteer at the 2009 Hospice Palliative Care Ontario’s provincial conference for her outstanding work.
That was just the start for her McNally connection.
“Once her term as Board Chair was completed, Shirley turned her interests to co-creating and chairing our annual “What’s in Your Attic” charity auction for six years, raising well over $100,000 for the hospice. Not only did she chair the auction, but she and Jack generously donated their prized collection of coloured cornflower glass – which was a great draw for bidders across the country!” recalled Blackwood.
Shirley’s efforts will have a lasting impact on the community, added Murray Bain, McNally’s president, chair of the board.
“As one of our founders of McNally House, Shirley was so committed to ensuring that hospice care in West Niagara was successful and would be set up in such a way that many people would benefit from the care and compassion of the incredible team that have followed her example from the very first day we opened our doors. Shirley has been a blessing to many people in our community in many different ways, but to the McNally House team we are beyond thankful for the many ways she has blessed us.”
A common thread with people who choose to live their life such as Shirley did – constantly busy, always helping somewhere – is they have their fingers in many pies. A brief list of some of the boards Shirley served on include: CNIB Hamilton, Brock University and its Foundation, Niagara Community Foundation, Festival at The Forty, Grimsby Museum and many others.
If she was not directly on a committee or board, chances are someone who was serving would get in touch with Shirley to talk strategy.
“Shirley never turned down a request to help and gave so much of herself to the many, many causes she believed in locally, federally and internationally – and did so with such grace, determination and kindness,” said Mary Volk, a former member of WLMH board of directors who now serves on Hamilton Health Sciences board.
“For many years, I had the luxury of spending time with this remarkable woman who enriched my life in many ways. I am both thankful and proud to have been Shirley’s friend. Through that friendship, I was also constantly reminded of how important family was to both her and Jack and how proud she was of each member of their family.”
“There is a poem by George Eliot which refers to ‘those immortal dead who live again in minds made better by their presence’. So many in our community and well beyond it have been made better by Shirley’s presence. I sorely miss her and know I am not alone in these feelings of loss and grief.”
Although she never sought the limelight or accolades for her work, others around her recognized her contribution leading to several honours over the years.
In 2006, Shirley was one of 22 Ontarians to receive the Senior Achievement Award which was given in recognition of significant contribution to the community after the age of 65. She was also named Grimsby Citizen of the Year in 2007.
For local politicians who followed in her footsteps, Shirley set the bar for standards very high.
“Shirley was one of the classiest, kindest and selfless people I have ever met. She loved her family. She was involved with the community long after her public service as a Member of Parliament and minister of the Crown. She always made time for those around her and had an impact on those she came in contact with. I considered her a friend and mentor. Our community mourns a great lady, and a huge champion of Niagara West. We are all going to miss her,” said Niagara West MP Dean Allison.
Similar sentiments were offered by provincial counterpart, MPP Sam Oosterhoff.
“Shirley was always busy with community events and fundraisers, philanthropy and mentoring, yet never too busy to take the time to chat about the issues of the day. Regal, dignified, yet approachable and down to earth all at once, I am thankful to have known her, and her presence will be sorely missed across the region.”
For someone like former Grimsby councillor, regional councillor and Niagara Regional Chair Debbie Zimmerman, Shirley was a role model in many ways.
“I met Shirley many years ago when she was a federal MP and Cabinet minister – a rare feat at the time,” said Zimmerman, who is also a director on McNally’s board.
“We shared many conversations about politics and community and I so admired her poise, grace and leadership abilities especially when needed for projects like McNally House. Shirley lived her life with purpose-she will be missed.”
All that effort, over many decades, is not lost on former Grimsby councillor, long-time political strategist and current co-chair of the WLMH Action Committee Tony Joosse.
“Shirley Martin symbolizes generosity, compassion and community leadership. She never stopped giving back to her community, never,” said Joosse.
Her life’s work will leave an indelible mark on her community as well as the family, friends and loved ones she left behind.
“I have very fond memories of Shirley. I see her in my mind’s eye as we are speaking right now. As I look back on our time together, I can’t recall her ever coming to meeting or to see me without her glorious smile. She was just a happy person – delighted with her constituency and her family and doing God’s work,” said Mr. Mulroney.
“Shirley was a marvelous human being. A great person to have as a friend and I enjoyed her friendship enormously. Shirley was one of a kind and we all appreciated and loved her.”