Thank you, Shirley Bird

Norm S. Davis

On May 9, I attended the memorial service for Shirley Bird Perry, held on the UT campus in the packed LBJ Auditorium. “Shirley Bird,” as she was affectionately known, worked for more than 50 years at UT, as Student Union program director, vice president and vice chancellor of the UT System. Among four UT presidents at the service, former President and Chancellor Bill Cunningham delivered a tearful, touching tribute to Shirley Bird. Former Chairman Hay of the UT System Board of Regents honored Shirley Bird’s incredible skill at always rounding up a wide range of people to achieve common goals that brought out the best in all of us, a talent which he notes is in short demand these days in the great state of Texas. The memorial service displayed both the enormous amount of friendship and respect Shirley Bird had established over a lifetime with so many people (built up from the rock-solid base of her almost 50-year marriage to lawyer Sam Perry — after the memorial service, Sam stood alone at the entrance to a reception in the LBJ library and forthrightly shook the hand of every single well-wisher); and the enormous circle of power in which Shirley Bird worked her magic.

And magic it was! When you walk into almost any of those new buildings on campus, including the Student Activity Center (which, by the way, should be renamed the Shirley Bird Perry Student Activity Center) and when you study with world-class professors, Shirley Bird Perry probably had something to do with all of this becoming your reality. It was not only a matter of raising hundreds of millions of dollars for your benefit, but it was also the vision and interpersonal wherewithal to convince other people that it should happen for the betterment of UT — that is, for your betterment as students.

Shirley Bird made beautiful things out of thin air; she made bigger visions out of smaller ones.

I first met Shirley when I was 19 and working in student activities in the Student Union. Shirley was 33 and working as program director at the Union. Throughout my junior and senior years at UT, Shirley Bird became a mentor to me. There was something in my own temperament and ambitions that made me observe and pay attention to Shirley Bird at work.

Looking back I can be more conscious of the power of mentoring. Mentors are among the first people in our lives who treat us as adults. They are not overly invested in our personal outcomes as our parents might be. Mentors encourage us to learn about and to be ourselves, to develop our talents, wherever they might take us.

Over more than 40 years, Shirley Bird wrote numerous personal references for me. More than letters of recommendations, she would also pick up the phone and make personal referrals on my behalf. When I picked up the phone to seek her advice, no matter her evermore impressive job titles, no matter her ever-increasingly demanding schedule, Shirley took the call and we’d talk through the issue — she’d always include a bit of her trademark humor, to put the situation in proper perspective. And she did this not just for me; this was the personalized and respectful way in which she engaged her entire world.

When Martin Luther King Jr. came to speak at the Union in 1962, Shirley created a bedroom in the Union so King did not have to suffer threats and the humiliation of segregation. What interests me is Shirley’s reasoning in her own words: "I was concerned about just a citizen or someone … [making] some disparaging remarks." Shirley stood up for respect for everyone so that King could speak up for justice for everyone.

There are times when the status quo needs to be confronted, and that certainly is what occurred in the 1960s and ‘70s. But there is always need for those few people who can treat everyone, allies and adversaries alike, with a genuinely personal respect. That was Shirley’s worldview, and that sort of open-minded ambiguity sometimes put Shirley in hot water. Even in defeat Shirley made an inspiring portrait: constructive self-evaluation, self-effacing humor and no defensiveness. She never took things too personally. When all was said and done, she forged ahead!

Imagine the power of working with someone like Shirley Bird when you are at the formative ages of 19, 20 and 21: an independent woman, a person who was unstoppable in her imaginative thinking, a true humanist who defied labels, a master politician and administrator leaving no detail unattended. An educator who is always reasoning, always communicating, innately respectful, even when confronted with other people’s (including us students’) audacity and, at times, down right mendacity. (These moments were always met with an innocent sort of surprise on Shirley’s part, and then you knew you were in store for one of Shirley’s rollicking, self-effacing Texas tales about how we all got out of that one!)

Of course, the portrait I present here are just my impressions because Shirley never focused on nor talked much about herself but rather always about goals and the adventures in getting there.

Even from the beyond, where Shirley has only been for a week or so now, she continues to mentor and inspire me: I can hear her telling me to write to you student readers and issue the prophecy that life is quick, so seize your dreams!

But you can’t do it alone. So put away the earphones, silence your cell phones and take a pause from your familiar social networking. Reduce the peripheral influences and cognitive dissonance, and observe and engage more directly with the random world and people around you. Explore what and who is truly, profoundly real in the life you dream for yourself; let yourself touch and be touched by the random humanity all around you.

If you do this, then I guarantee that you will find your own Shirley Bird Perry to mentor you because these extraordinary people are all around us — men and women who encourage us to dream and prepare us with the human resourcefulness to reconcile those dreams with reality.

But, you must seek them out. Oh, I guess I forgot to mention that: It is youwho must seek to be mentored by others. Then, in kind, the right people in your life will respond and lend their hand in support of you.

For my part, with much of my own life seen through the rearview mirror, Shirley is still urging me on, to find my own appropriate ways to participate as a UT alumnus, to mentor students.

After Shirley’s memorial service, as I am driving back through the beautiful late spring Texas countryside to my hometown of Houston before heading on to where I now live in Montreal, Canada, I feel just wonderful! Shirley is right there at my side in spirit, and we are young again, feeling the freedom and expectation of the uncharted life ahead.

Thanks for everything, Shirley Bird!

Davis graduated from UT in 1972.