Lessons Learned In Combat

Goodbye to a Mentor and a Friend


Margaret Shirley
Image courtesy UNH Magazine

She never missed a birthday. Whether it was mine or that of either of my two daughters, we could always count on receiving a postcard filled with her scrawly cursive, wishing us a joyful day and asking–always–what book we were currently reading.

Even during the last weeks of her life, Margaret didn’t miss a birthday. Right on schedule, the postcard arrived in our mailbox, telling my youngest daughter how much she loved her and how she was looking forward to our next visit.

It was a visit that, sadly, remained unscheduled: Margaret passed away just two weeks ago, on the first day of spring– a day that each year brought her one step closer to her beloved summer, when she could while away her days reading Booker Prize winners and bodysurfing from dawn to dusk.

While certainly Margaret was a friend– a dear friend with whom I spent many special moments, from my college graduation, to several Thanksgiving celebrations, to the regular Sunday brunches we shared in the fall, winter, and spring (but never summer–bodysurfing, after all)–she was also a mentor. A mentor with whom I connected as a UNH student in her class, Introduction to Essay Writing, nearly twenty years ago.

From the outset, Margaret saw great potential in me, as both a thinker and as a writer. She wasn’t one to dispense praise easily– her scrawls on my essay drafts were both infrequent and purposeful–but her actions spoke much louder than her words. When I visited her in the annals of Hamilton-Smith during her office hours, I would see my columns from the student newspaper Scotch-taped onto her walls. When I spoke during class, she would not only listen, but challenge me to articulate and expand on my ideas. When I was awarded an academic honor, she would take a snapshot of it and send it to me in the mail.

She would also advise me to take a class with Tom Newkirk to hone my essay writing; she would tell me what would make my newspaper columns more concise and engaging; she would chuckle and declare me an “old soul” when we had deep conversations together about teaching and learning.

And as our friendship grew, she would share with me her own writing. Margaret, being the disciplined person she was, arose early every morning to write. Most of it, she would tell me, was drivel, simply practice for the “real good stuff”; and inevitably, because of this practice, something fantastic in her writing–the “real good stuff”–would emerge. One of these gems was an essay she wrote about being “born to teach” that also became one of her proudest moments as a writer when it was accepted and published in the spring 2010 edition of the University of New Hampshire magazine. Before publication, when she sent me a copy of her rough draft and asked for my feedback (my feedback!), what became one of her proudest moments as a writer also became one of mine.

Being the no-nonsense person she was, Margaret decided to forego a memorial service after her death. While a series of strokes had left her unable to speak intelligibly, I can just picture her waving her hand dismissively at her sons: Please! her hand would say. Don’t make a fuss over me. As I chuckle at the thought, my heart aches knowing that I will not have a formal chance to say goodbye to her, to tell her how much she taught me over the years, and how much she meant to me and my family.

Instead, I’ll write it in a postcard.


Please share your thoughts!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s