Margaret Shirk may be the most powerful woman in Lawrence.
If you don’t believe me, find any number of Lawrence leaders who spent their college years at Kansas University, and ask them if they spent any time at the Shirk Barn, which has been renowned for decades as one of the top local spots for fraternity and sorority parties and other such gatherings.
Then, tell them that you recently just spoke with Margaret and watch these esteemed community leaders begin to sweat and quiver as they wonder what story she may have told.
“Oh, we’ve seen it all over the years,” Shirk says of the nearly 50 years she’s rented out the large barn just north of North Lawrence.
But don’t worry, she doesn’t tell those stories. At least not yet. She likely doesn’t have time. Shirk is set to turn 97 years old this week, and there’s always lots to do. Volunteering for the Red Cross. Working elections in Grant Township. Lending a hand at the KU Alumni Association. Finding someone to drive her to KU basketball games when all she has to offer is a court-side ticket in return. Actually, that one doesn’t take much time.
“Oh, they beg me,” she says of how people sign up for that chore.
Yes, all of that at 96 years old. But before you start doing keg stands at the Senior Center, Margaret says she doesn’t think it is the barn parties that have kept her so young and active. She’s not even sure it is the aspirin that she takes every evening at supper. There’s an even simpler prescription at work here. For years, it has involved Margaret getting up every morning, going outside and walking 30 laps around her large, rural home.
“The secret to doing all this is just to do it,” Margaret says. “You have to keep moving and stay active. That is the secret.”
Margaret’s grandfather David Hamilton Lewis knew the value of staying on the move. As a Missouri school teacher in the days of the Civil War, Lewis got a good reminder in the value of being on your toes when a bullet cut through the sleeve of his coat jacket. It came because some of his neighbors thought he was a bit too much of an abolitionist.
So Lewis came west and landed where men of free thought often did in those days. On that little piece of ground he settled just north of the Kansas River, Margaret’s father also learned the value of staying on the move. He was a farmer for many years, but then went on to work at the Kansas City Board of Trade, despite never having graduated from high school.
“He was a smart man, though,” Margaret says.
Smart enough that when Margaret turned 5 he bought her 100 shares of Kansas Power & Light and told her to keep it for a really long time and not to waste the dividend money on frivolities.
She didn’t. Armed with an economics degree from KU, she added to that investment and others over the years. In 1966, she and her husband, David Shirk, returned to the farm full time following the death of her mother. That’s when they started renting the barn out.
“My mother probably wouldn’t have liked it,” Margaret says of the barn rentals, which she now limits to just a few events a year.
All the while, Margaret continued to move onward and upward as she remembered the advice her father had about stocks and bonds. Now, while Margaret still preaches the value of movement, she rests assured that her family — she has two daughters — never will have to move from this farm that her grandfather settled.
“It is going to stay in the family,” she says. “There is no doubt about that. I had one man tell me he could pay me big money for it. I told him there is no way he would have enough money to pay me for this farm. He laughed and said I wasn’t serious. I told him I was, and he hasn’t been back since.”
I tried to interview Margaret two weeks ago, but the 96-year old told me it would have to be another week. Her schedule already was booked up.
Jan Blocher, director of the local Red Cross chapter, knows the feeling. She wanted to take Margaret out to lunch for her birthday sometime this week. But it will have to be next week. Too much going on.
Margaret recently was recognized for 50 years of volunteer work with the American Red Cross. She comes to the organization’s blood drives that happen every other month and works a full day as the person in charge of greeting and registration. On election days she works from about 5 a.m. to well past 7 p.m. staffing the polling place in Grant Township. Yes, you should feel bad that a 96-year old woman worked for more than 14 hours and fewer than 40 of you showed up to vote at her polling station during this last election.
But Margaret says she’ll be there again in November. Her devotion to volunteering for elections is about the only thing that can keep her away from Allen Fieldhouse, which annoyingly has a basketball game on election night more often than you would think, Margaret says. Margaret says she thinks her duties with elections are the only times she’s ever missed a men’s home basketball game since 1940.
Her love of KU basketball comes natural. As a young girl, she was a flower girl in a wedding that was officiated by James Naismith, the inventor of the game, who also was a minister. Naismith conducted the wedding ceremony in front of the fireplace that still stands in Margaret’s home.
Margaret can tell you stories about any number of Lawrence dignitaries. There’s no doubt she can tell stories about the past, but what’s important is that she can do far more than that. Blocher said that is one of the key things she’s learned from Margaret: Keeping on the move isn’t just a physical thing.
“I think she has worked very hard to not get trapped in any one era,” Blocher says. “She changes with the times and is very relevant. There is nothing fuddy-duddy about her.”
Case in point: Blocher recently went to the house for a visit, and she found Margaret outside — in cutoff jean shorts, bare feet and a tank top, pulling weeds.
“I thought,” Blocher says, “I want to be just like you when I grow up.”
We all can. We just have to get moving. And just to be safe, maybe we should have a barn party too.