Remembering Shirley Land

Shirley Land died last night, surrounded by her family. She was 96.

Shirley’s daughter described her as a “remarkable, kind, upbeat, intelligent, interesting and inquisitive woman. She grabbed life with both hands, and enjoyed it immensely.”  

Shirley was one of the last of a generation of men and women who made a remarkable impact on Westport. In 2008, when she moved to North Carolina to be closer to her family, I wrote a story extolling her virtues. I am honored to reprint it.

As a new generation takes over Westport — altering its physical, political and social landscapes in ways large and small, positive and negative — an older generation fades. Men and women in their 70s, 80s and 90s — the ones who steered our town through the turbulent 1960s; who modernized old cultural icons like the library, and created important new ones like the senior center; who kept the artistic flame burning on stage and in galleries — are moving on.

Some go permanently, through death. Others fade slowly, moving away from Westport into assisted living centers or with their children. That is how things happen in a community, and the world. It is life, and life moves on.

But Westport must remember, and honor, the many folks whose countless hours of service and boundless stores of energy made this place what it was, what it is, and, in many ways, what it will remain for years to come. Which is why the departure of Shirley Land — who leaves Westport next month for North Carolina — cannot go unnoticed.

Shirley Land, loving life.

Shirley Land, loving life.

Land is small in stature — I tower over her, no small feat — but her imprint on our town is huge. Julie Belaga, a former state legislator and candidate for governor, first met her in 1965, when the Belaga family moved to Berndale Drive.

“We were next door neighbors,” Belaga recalled. “From the very start I realized she was a remarkable woman. She was dear, loving, high-energy and every time I turned around she was working on something. The first project I knew about was for underprivileged pre-school children, with Sybil Steinberg, but she went on to work for the bicentennial, the library, the arts — you name it.” Belaga remembered that Land was one of the Westport News’ first EASE columnists.

“Shirley was the best neighbor anyone could have. She was generous and fun. Everyone would be lucky to have Shirley Land as their neighbor.”

Shirley Land and her beloved husband Alex.

Shirley Land and her beloved husband Alex.

Westport got lucky when Land moved here in 1961. Immediately, she volunteered at her 3 children’s schools. “That was natural, because this was such a wonderful small town,” Land said. “I grew up in Chicago, and never lived in a small town. Moving here was a wonderful fluke, but it was the best thing that happened to us and our children.”

Mollie Donovan — no slouch herself in the volunteer department — said, “In 1974 the PTA Council took over the Westport Schools’ Permanent Art Collection. My sister Eve Potts, Dora Stuttman and I worked with Shirley on it. She said it would take a year. Thirty years later, it’s still going strong.

“Shirley is one of the most loyal friends I’ve had,” Donovan praised. “Any committee I ever asked her to serve on, she did, from arts shows on Jesup Green to anything for the historical society. Her energy and creativity are amazing.” Donovan also noted that Land ran “one of the earliest exercise groups in Westport” — at her backyard swimming pool.

In 1974 Land was appointed chairman of Westport’s Bicentennial Committee. Throughout 1976 she helped produce a full and wide-ranging calendar of events, culminating with a Grand Ball at what is now the Levitt Pavilion.

In addition, said former 2nd selectman and dynamo-about-town Betty Lou Cummings, “Shirley really made the Riverwalk come true. She was president of the Friends of the Library. She thought having a brick walkway along the Saugatuck River was a wonderful idea, and she made sure it happened.”

Cummings lauded Land’s “Yes, we can do it!” spirit. “She always had a positive answer. Everyone always turns to her because such a good do-bee. She’s made such a difference in our lives.”

Land’s other accomplishments include leading the United Fund (the precursor to today’s Westport-Weston United Way), and co-founding the Y’s Women organization.

Shirley Land

Shirley Land

More recently, Land turned her attention to the Senior Center. She was an original member of the organization’s Friends group, and served on the center’s policy and planning board. According to director Sue Pfister, “Jack Klinge, the president of the Friends of the Senior Center, says that whenever something absolutely had to get done, he asked Shirley. Then he was sure it would be taken care of.”

Land was active in the center’s home-delivered meals program, organized current events seminars and, with her late husband Alex, participated in aerobic chair activities. “She was so loving, committed and devoted to him, particularly in the final years of his life,” Pfister said.

“She is energetic, informative, well-versed, enthusiastic, upbeat and determined,” Pfister added. “If there was ever a problem, Shirley solved it immediately and correctly. She is so well-respected and loved. I’ll miss her — and so will everyone here.”

Perhaps no organization is more closely entwined with Land’s life than the Westport Public Library. “She was involved with everything here,” said director Maxine Bleiweis. “She reactivated our Friends of the Library group and was president of it. She was an employee here, doing public relations, for 11 years, and then she volunteered. She was the first recipient of our Special Friends award, and no one was more deserving of that honor.”

“It has been a privilege to have her energy and positiveness put to use for the library — as it has been for so many other groups and organizations in town,” Bleiweis added. “Her personal strength and her willingness to do whatever needed to be done, for whatever cause she was working on, are inspirations and examples to everyone.”

Shirley Land was not a big woman, but she had a broad reach throughout Westport.

Shirley Land was not a big woman, but she had a broad reach throughout Westport.

Five weeks from now, on March 31, Land leaves the town she calls “so comfortable. I feel so privileged not to have sat in a corner, but to have gotten to know such a diversity of people through so many activities.” She will miss all that — including walking along Compo Beach, an activity she continued with her husband even when he was sick. “We met everyone there, she said. “And together we solved all the world’s problems.”

Land looks forward to living near her daughter Carol in Chapel Hill and getting involved in the rich cultural and social life of the area. However, she admitted, “At 90 years old, this is a long jump to take. The thought of leaving Westport is a little scary.”

Not nearly as scary as imagining Westport without Shirley Land.

(There will be a small service in North Carolina for Shirley this month, followed by a memorial in Connecticut at a date to be determined.)

14 responses to “Remembering Shirley Land

  1. Hedi Lieberman

    Shirley was a friend and a mentor to me. Just a wonderful gal!!

  2. Farley Bernholz

    It was our gain when Shirley moved to the Chapel Hill area. Her daughter, Carol is a friend of mine and very quickly Shirl, as we called her, became a gal pal too. Every encounter with Shirl was memorable. We had lots of BIG laughs together and often looked through her picture albums recounting the adventures of Shirley Land. What a wonderful woman. Her two daughters, Carol and Alix are fabulous in their own right. In them, I see so many of Shirl’s qualities. She will live on through these two women.

  3. My love and condolences to Carol Land on the loss of her wonderful mother. Carol and I were in Staples Players together. Thank you Dan for this beautiful remembrance.

  4. Joey Kaempfer

    Shirley and Alex Land were like a second set of parents to me. Warm, caring, loving and thoughtful. Both of them made a tremendous difference in my life and were truly extraordinary human beings. I was very lucky to have them in my life. Joey

  5. Lauren Ward

    Shirley was a true treasure. I never had an encounter with her that did not leave me smiling and feeling better. My condolences to her family; may they take comfort in knowing how much she meant to so many.

  6. Betty Lou Cummings

    There were so many good things that happened around Shirley Land….she was such a positive and loving soul. I remember when Shirley was our first “Special Friends of the Library” awardee,. I was Chairman then…it was so easy getting people to talk about her abilities of getting things done. and all her accomplishments…..she was praised for so much. Shirley was President of the Friends of the Library when were building our Library Riverwalk & Gardens,.I thanked her so much for her positive direction in that project…she truly made a difference. Dear Carol, you had a remarkable Mother & we had one of the great volunteers for our town…she will always be remembered…Betty Lou Cummings.

  7. I had the pleasure of working with Shirley when i first started working at WPL in 2000. She was a whirlwind of energy and worked harder than anyone i knew. I learned much from her and it was my great fortune to know her.

  8. Faith Taylor

    Shirley’s spirit was indefatigable, her energy was unflagging and her love of and commitment to the Library was boundless. If she was on your team, all was well. She had an opinion about most everything and her company always guaranteed good conversation. She was a wonderful friend to me and to the Westport community.

  9. Maxine Bleiweis

    Shirley had more energy than anyone half her age. She would report on her weekend activities that always seemed to include no less than two plays, one concert, and three art openings and she’d polish off a book in between. She embodied the epitome intellectual curiosity.

  10. I had a great visit with Shirley, her daughter, Carol and her granddaughter in April on my return from Florida and though she was having some health problems, she arrived pushing her shiny turquoise walker, still perky and engaged. She was an amazing friend to the whole Potts family and a real force in Westport. She will be missed.

  11. I had the rare privilege of knowing Shirley first as a teenager growing up in town, where she and my mother were the ultimate volunteer moms and organized everything from the Bicentennial celebration to the PTA, the arts, the Library, etc….and then eventually an adult, taking on many of the same projects and learning from a ‘pro’. She was one of my real role models, both for working hard for the things we cared about…and finding joy in it. There have been so many wonderful women over the years who shaped the town and made it a ‘special place’ and it is sad to lose one of the best. It will take all of our efforts to match the energy and spirit that she exemplified 🙂

  12. My family has very fond recollections of Shirley. My wife, Cathe taught her aerobics at the “Y” under the auspices of Fun Fitness and Shirley and some of her posse of lady friends arranged for swim aerobics at various friends’ pools. Through that connection, my daughters all babysat for grandchildren of Shirley’s when they were in town. All the Ryan women found her to be a delightful person, as did I on the couple of occasions that we met. I am sure her family finds some comfort knowing the very fulfilling life she led and the positive impact she made.

  13. I met Shirley when i was 6 years old after she moved to Berndale Drive. My Mom volunteered with her in organizations that served Westport. Both were role models for me, helping to shape my life-long positive attitude towards volunteering for non-profit work. While growing up in Westport every time I saw her she always displayed enthusiastic interest and kind support towards me that I remember to this day. My condolences to the Land family.

  14. prinnyanderson

    As a friend of Shirley’s daughter, Carol, I’ve heard about Shirley for years. These tributes add so many more incidents to her life, and also explain why Carol is the caring, sparkly and committed person she is. Kind thoughts for all the Land family.