Gratitude and graduates
So much was taken from the world on 9/11. Now, as we observe the 20th anniversary, we celebrate how an Ohio State alumna and others aboard a jet bound for the United States that day made an unexpected stop in Newfoundland, where they found friends and an amazing opportunity to pay forward.
Conversation over a cup of tea. More than a book launch. Or dinner with influential diplomats. Or visiting with the writers of a Tony Award-winning Broadway musical. More than any other highlight of her 30th trip to Newfoundland, that simple pleasure is what most excites Shirley Brooks-Jones ’94. Even the always-emotional ceremony at the Appleton 9/11 Memorial is second to the chance to “just sit and have a cup of tea with those kind, gentle, fun and funny Newfoundlanders.”
It’s been 20 years since Shirley met her dear friends in Canada’s easternmost province. It was Sept. 11, 2001, and the jet carrying her home from a trip to Europe made an emergency landing at Gander International Airport. Thirty-eight planes put down there that day as pilots learned the first details of the horrifying events taking place at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a rural field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
Shirley and the 6,594 others aboard those jets became “the plane people” to Newfoundland’s warm and welcoming residents, who opened their arms and their homes. Three days of hospitality in and around the small town of Lewisporte spurred a response by Shirley and others aboard Delta Flight 15 that stands in defiant resilience to the ugly acts that took 2,977 innocent lives on 9/11.
Once airborne again and headed to the United States, Shirley and her fellow passengers discussed how they could thank their hosts, proud people and many of modest means. Something for the town’s children, someone suggested, perhaps a scholarship. That struck a chord with Shirley, and knowledge gleaned from her 35 years with Ohio State’s College of Food, Agricultural and Environmental Sciences (FAES) and five years as volunteer co-chair of the Campus Campaign gave her insight to suggest an endowed college scholarship program for the region’s students.
Shirley drew up makeshift pledge sheets, and Capt. Michael Sweeney allowed her to make a pitch over the plane’s PA system and committed the first donation. By the time they landed in Atlanta, the passengers and crew had pledged $15,000. Today, the endowment fund exceeds $1 million, and 341 students of Lewisporte Collegiate school have earned scholarships.
Recipients have gone on to become doctors, teachers and engineers who make our world a better place. Their lives are tributes to those killed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
One is Dr. Raie Lene Heath Kirby, who was in the first class of scholarship recipients in 2002. She recently was named her hospital’s chief of staff, Shirley boasts, and is a talented singer, composer and airplane pilot. Another is Mackenzie Pope, who has just begun veterinary school on Prince Edward Island and aspires to an internship at Columbus Zoo and Aquarium. If that comes to pass, there’s a room waiting for her at Shirley’s Dublin, Ohio, home.
“My experience at Ohio State prepared me for this,” Shirley says of organizing and administrating the scholarship program. She retired in 1989 as assistant to the vice president for agricultural administration, where she worked hand in hand with then-Dean Roy Kottman and others committed to FAES students. “I saw how even a tiny little scholarship would help kids get started.”
Many Lewisporte students cut their educations short in order to get jobs to help their families. The few hundred dollars each scholarship amounts to can sway a decision to attend college. Until the pandemic’s travel restrictions kept her away this year and last, Shirley had been present for all but three graduations to award the scholarships in person. In 2005, she was named the first honorary graduate of Lewisporte Collegiate.
“I would talk with the principal, guidance counselor and teachers on each trip. They would say, ‘You have no idea what this means to the students.’ I knew that deep in my soul,” she says. “What little I can do, I want to do.”
The oldest of nine children, Shirley was born in Appalachian Ohio’s Vinton County, and her youth was spent there and in Columbus. When she graduated from high school, she returned to Columbus and took a civil service job as a clerk stenographer with Ohio State’s agriculture college. She retired 35 years later as the right hand to FAES leadership and soon embarked on her own Ohio State education. She graduated in 1994 with a bachelor’s degree in English.
Shirley is exceedingly proud of that diploma, as she is of the emerita honors the university granted her in recognition of her service to Ohio State. And she’s amazed by the turns her life has taken, largely because an unplanned stop in Newfoundland two decades ago.
Many have recognized Shirley’s penchant for paying forward. In the 1990s, FAES established the Shirley Brooks-Jones Citizenship Award, presented annually to staff members for their contributions to the common good. In 2007, her favorite Canadian province bestowed its highest honor for an individual, the medal of the Order of Newfoundland and Labrador.
Based on the events in and around Gander in September 2001, the play “Come From Away” hit Broadway in 2017, earning seven Tony Award nominations and a win for director Christopher Ashley. Shirley will reconnect with playwrights Irene Sankoff and David Hein on her trip to Newfoundland this fall.
The play, which is scheduled for Feb. 8–13, 2022, at Columbus’ Ohio Theatre, features a male character based on Shirley Brooks-Jones. She was excited to meet the Broadway and North American tour actors in that role, and they no doubt shared her enthusiasm. “The Broadway actor, Rodney Hicks, picked me up and swung me around,” she recalls. “He had tears running down his face as he thanked me for what I had done.” James Earl Jones II portrayed Shirley in the North American tour, and she expects to see him again in February.
Shirley is astonished by all the ways her life has been shaped by the manifestation of gratitude she and others aboard Delta Flight 15 felt for their 2001 Newfoundland hosts. College educations in the hundreds. Bonds that defy description. A second family to the north.
“It’s like you’ve known them your whole life,” she says. There’s no one Shirley would want to be with more on the somber 20th anniversary of 9/11. Nowhere else that better represents to her the value of responding to unthinkable acts with goodness and love.