‘Lifelong KU cheerleader’ also remembered as dedicated Red Cross, election volunteer

Margaret Shirk, shown at age 97 in rural Lawrence, displays an album of Jayhawk memorabilia. She said she hadn't missed a KU men's home basketball game since 1940 — unless the game coincided with an election, in which case she was working at the polls.

One of the people who benefited from Margaret Shirk’s dedication to volunteerism said her appearance was deceiving.

“Tiny but mighty,” is how Jane Blocher, regional director of the American Red Cross, described the 4-foot-10 Shirk. “I think a lot of people underestimated her because of that, but the strength and quiet power she exuded were amazing.”

Shirk died Sept. 15 at 100 years of age.

Three years ago, Blocher visited the North 1900 Road homestead familiar to many University of Kansas alumni from the barn parties that Shirk and her husband, David, hosted. Blocher found Shirk in the yard on a hot summer day pulling weeds while dressed in jean shorts and a tank top.

“I think that was the reason for her longevity,” Blocher said. “She was the poster child for not sitting still in retirement.”

The Shirks met at KU in the 1930s when David was football captain, and they remained lifelong Jayhawks, said Dale Seuferling, president of the KU Endowment Association. Shirk had deep Jayhawk roots, having received a pat on the head from James Naismith after dropping the ring as a young ring bearer at a wedding that the inventor of basketball was officiating, Seuferling said.

The couple loved the barn parties at the farm that Shirk’s grandparents settled and the interactions they had with generations of KU students, Seuferling said. Shirk maintained and expanded on those connections through her participation at KU reunions, he said.

“She presented that warm KU welcome to the campus,” he said. “She was so full of life and enjoyment; people loved being around her.”

Shirk made regular visits to the endowment association into her 90s, wearing crimson and blue outfits, Seuferling said.

“She was a lifelong KU cheerleader,” he said.

Shirk shared that energy with the Red Cross as a former board member, a leader of a number of fundraising campaigns and an organizer of blood drives every eight weeks in Lawrence since 1965.

“She missed two blood drives in all those years,” Blocher said. “When her husband died, she scheduled the funeral around a blood drive. She knew each donor on a personal level. Many made a habit of giving blood because of the bond they had with Margaret. She was a motivator. People would come to drives to see and talk with Margaret.”

The Red Cross will dedicate an upcoming blood drive to Shirk. The drive will be from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Thursday at Immanuel Lutheran Church, 2104 Bob Billings Parkway. Blocher said the blue coat and red high heels she always wore at blood drives would be on display.

Shirk was equally dedicated to her volunteer election duties, said Douglas County Clerk Jamie Shew. His office researched how long Shirk had worked elections when she had her 100th birthday on Aug. 18; it found she had been a poll worker in Grant Township since 1954, and it honored Shirk by naming her permanent supervising judge of the Grant Township polling site, Shew said.

“As county clerk, I get to know quite a few poll workers, but she had a special place for me,” he said. “When she was getting into her late 90s, I would call to ask if she was going to work this year. She would reply with an offended voice, ‘Why wouldn’t I?'”

Shew said one year Shirk was in an accident while driving early on a foggy morning to the Grant Township polling site.

“She wouldn’t let the ambulance drivers take her to the hospital until they first went to the polling site so she could see it was ready, and they did it,” he said. “Our poll worker coordinator Julia Ybarra got her some flowers, but she was upset when she got them. We found out later, she didn’t want her husband finding out about the accident because she didn’t want him to make her quit driving.”

Sometimes her election duties conflicted with a home KU basketball game, which was another of Shirk’s never-miss activities, Shew said.

“There was a whole group of people set up so as soon as she dropped off her poll bags, they would get her to the game,” he said.