by Ted Streuli
Club 29 isn’t the sort of Rotary club that favors cargo shorts and flip-flops. Meetings aren’t held in a brewery. Meals don’t come in white cardboard boxes. The Oklahoma City Rotary Club is given more to pinstriped suits, linen tablecloths and china. The club maintains it’s own standard, one that was shaped at least in part in the image of its longtime executive administrator and first woman member, Shirley Kirschner.
Shirley has served Club 29 for 45 years. She will retire June 30, but her imprint will remain long after her departure from the club’s Robinsons Avenue office.
“She made everything be first class,” said incoming president Ann Ackerman.
Throughout her tenure, Shirley exuded grace, class and charm. From her formal office attire and meticulous desk to her diplomacy, kindness and flair for hospitality, she embodies the personality of a club that prides itself on those same virtues.
To many in Oklahoma City, Shirley is Club 29. She has also been the face of the club in Rotary, well-known and well-respected at district events, large club conferences and Rotary International events.
“She’s really a rock star,” said Past President Ellen Fleming. “Everybody knows Shirley and seeks her out. They value her opinion.”
Shirley was hired by the club in 1974 and in 1987 became Club 29’s first woman member. Her membership came about with the help of some good politicking by then-president Burns Hargis. Although it had become clear that Rotary’s days as an all-male organization were over, resistance to gender diversification remained. Burns asked Shirley to break the barrier knowing that she was so highly regarded among the membership no one would vote against her — and he held a public, verbal vote just to make sure.
“She embraced our club being more diverse,” said Ann, “and she certainly lived it.”
Shirley embraced diversity along with everything else the club had to offer. She never stopped recruiting, taking pride in the club’s growth from 338 members when she was hired to more than 600 members as she retires. And she knows all of them.
Those who know her well talk about her compassion and empathy, her unique way of knowing not only each member, but something about their personal lives and their families. She is known for her ability to make newcomers feel welcome and for her uncanny memory; Shirely knows every member’s badge number and is the de facto club historian, recalling with ease the long-past details of a policy decision or bit of personal strife.
“She knew everybody,” said club president Tom Phillips. “Her knowledge of the club members and their families was encyclopedic.”
And that institutional knowledge was important for continuity.
“As a new president, you don’t know anything,” Tom said. “She was a marvelous resource. And she is a nice person. I don’t know how I could have got through without her.”
Shirley’s longtime co-worker, Cheryl Byrd, said that taking care of the club was paramount to Shirley.
“There is a force there, an energy that says, ‘we’re going to get this done, and we’re going to get it done in a kind manner,’” Cheryl said. “I watched her walk away from the office for the last time and I was thinking, ‘I’ve spent 33 years working with you and thank you – thank you for giving me a working life. It’s the best possible job I could have had.’”
Former club president Terri Cooper met Shirley in 1976, long before they were both club members. Cooper said Shirley was always working for Rotary, always thinking about what would help the club.
“She put her heart into Rotary,” Terri said. “She cared about our club.”
That sentiment was repeated dozens of time on cards members wrote for Shirley on June 18, at the last regular meeting of the Rotary year.
“You have led with grace, dignity and class,” one card said. “You are the best,” said several. But the best summation of the club’s clear affection and appreciation was among the shortest:
“Shirley, dear Shirley, thanks so much!”