At age 91, Shirley Alexander still has the volunteer spirit and love of people that has produced a long string of awards. Not to mention her sense of humor.
Alexander, who has lived in Bellingham for 78 years, has spent a bit more than 11 years at Woodway Senior Living, where she still loves to help in any way she can, especially calling bingo games.
“I’ve lived on all three floors,” says the affable great-grandmother. “The only place they haven’t put me is on the roof!”
Longtime locals will remember Alexander’s day-care work, serving students of working parents at the early incarnation of Roosevelt School. She and her husband, the late Emery E. Alexander, lived on Valencia Street, across the street from the old school, and reared their three children there.
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Kids would flock to their home for lunch and for after-school fun. In fact, she would make so many lunches that she had to stagger serving kids by the half-hour.
Some locals will also remember the Alexanders’ red wagon. Neither Shirley nor Emery owned a car; instead, they walked all over town for shopping and other outings.
“We just never did get a car,” she says. “Sometimes we’d give kids a ride in that wagon.”
Alexander has done extensive volunteer work at Garden Street United Methodist Church, where she has worshiped since she was 14 and where she and Emery were married after his Army service in World War II. She has also volunteered at Bellingham Senior Activity Center; at Alderwood Park Health and Rehabilitation, where she was once feted as Volunteer of the Year; and for the March of Dimes and the Muscular Dystrophy Association.
Her skills as a crafter, roller skater and all-round “people person” enabled her to make far from the usual contributions. She has a boxful of trophies, including a 1973 trophy from a Muscular Dystrophy skate-a-thon, and a pair of plaques for her six years of fundraising in the 1970s for the March of Dimes.
“I marched all over town,” she says, recalling that was no problem because she was in great shape and accustomed to walking. “I turned in $300 in 1977.”
Considering inflation, that’s more than $1,200 in today’s dollars. And that was far from all; in 1976, as part of a U.S. bicentennial drive, she raised $200 for the March of Dimes.
Two of her children, son Lyle and daughter Alys, still live in Bellingham. The third, Virginia Dee, is deceased.
Alexander, who was born Aug. 5, 1923, and grew up in Los Angeles, battled health issues as a child and attended school through eighth grade. Instead of going to high school, she helped rear her two younger siblings, Arthur Dwight Case and Edith Leslie Case Matson, who now live in Oregon. She married Elmer in her early 20s.
In other words, she’s s a woman with a big heart who was born to work with kids.
“I have always loved children so much,” she says.
She has two presidential awards in her residence at Woodway. The first, signed by the first President Bush, honors her husband’s military serve. The second, from President Obama, is a Presidential Volunteer Service Award for her lifetime of service.
“My son Lyle lives seven blocks away and he sees me three times a week,” she says. “We wanted a boy first, but we waited 13 years for him. Eventually, he’s the one who provided a car for us.”
Michelle Nolan is a Bellingham writer.