Into every life a few special people make their mark, and for me nobody brought as much good natured cheer and optimism as Shirley Gomez. She passed away yesterday, as comfortably as someone possibly can. Thankfully her sons, Samuel and Miguel were, as usual, watching over their mom as she had done for them when they were younger. Shirley was 82 and we were all happy that she had just won a battle with breast cancer when yet another health challenge, pneumonia, arose. With an immune system that had no time to recharge, she lost that battle.
Shirley was determined to stay in the same house where she raised her large family in North Adams. Her husband, Sam Gomez, had predeceased her as did so many of her friends. As with all of us who grow older, her options had narrowed somewhat in recent years, but she would never let that stop her from living life to the fullest.
She was determined to hang in there, not going gently but “raging against the dying of the light” until the bitter end. She once said that the only way she would leave her home “was on a gurney”. So she covered her decline as best she could for many months, possibly years. She did a good job, never complained, and was always ready to go when I arrived to pick her up for one of our adventures. Only in the last few weeks did she admit she was “not up to it.” I asked her questions but she insisted that I not worry, just routine medical appointments. But something was up. She began to miss openings and our treks to Trader Joe’s and the Clear Brook Farm in Shaftsbury, VT.
As things turned out she took that final ride on the dreaded gurney less than a week ago as she was taken up to the hospital for treatment. But things were not repairable this time. In just four days it was all over.
To say that Shirley Gomez loved life would be an understatement. She thrived on the many things the Berkshires offered, and loved our hills, our farms, and our culture with a passion that was contagious. For the past five years she has been my constant companion at the theatre, at Jacob’s Pillow, Tanglewood and even in Boston. For her birthday a few years ago I sprang for tickets to Cirque du Soleil and she was as blown away by their intense showmanship as I was.
Until just a couple of months ago, Shirley never said “no” to any performance or adventure I proposed. Hurtling down the rock strewn mountain road to Tannery Falls I could hear her catch her breath, but she doggedly trusted that I knew what I was doing. After a play she would often comment that “I could tell the actors were enjoying themselves,” and that was the Shirley Seal of Approval. All she ever wanted actors to do is to give their all to their performance, and to have a good time doing it.
Her passing has been noted by many theatre people, writers, and critics. Upon learning the sad news, my colleague Charles Giuliano who is editor and publisher of Berkshire Fine Arts wrote “Truly Shirley was a great lady who will be missed by all of us in the Berkshire Theatre Community.” You can read his remembrance here (link).
She never bragged about it but she was friends with the Barretts and the Drohans. John Barrett III, the North Adams Mayor for two plus decades (1983-2009) would give her a thrill whenever he asked to dance with her – even at a Thanksgiving dinner. She also understood the ordeal that Glen Drohan (editor of the North Adams Transcript) endured before his passing and would often spend time with his wife as good friends always do.
Shirley was born in 1929 in South Weymouth, MA and was orphaned at a young age, and raised by her aunt and uncle, Eleanor and Hugh Nixon of Melrose. Her Uncle Hugh was a past president of the Mass Teachers’ Association and instilled in Shirley the value of education. She received her BA in English at Bridgewater State, where she met and married Samuel.
Upon graduation she taught elementary school in Bridgewater but eventually earned her MA in Children’s Literature, at the University of Florida at Gainesville while Sam received his MA in Philosophy.
She was more than a just a teacher, but also involved in community service. She served as the president of the PTA at Dr. Samuel Eveleth school in Marblehead. She was a Poll Worker in North Adams. She served for several years as a member of the Board of Directors and Secretary of the Friends of the Council on Aging which works to support the Mary Spitzer Senior Center in North Adams.
Her late husband, Samuel Gomez established and led the Philosophy Department at MCLA (then North Adams State College). Shirley meanwhile taught all grades from kindergarten to college. She last taught at Berkshire Community College in Pittsfield.
Shirley Gomez is survived by her children, Samuel, of North Adams; Miguel of Hampton, VA; Juan, of Bainbridge, GA; Melita, of Camano Island, WA and Simon Peter, of Canton, GA. She was predeceased by her husband Samuel Gomez, former professor of Philosophy and coach of the Cross Country team at MCLA, and her daughter Senga Gomez Bielecki.
Her favorite things included a penchant for generosity towards both animals (she loved cats) and people less fortunate than herself.
Over her long life she never lost her interest in books, or in playwriting, and was happy to be able to spend so much of her final years indulging herself in both. It sometimes took a bit of prodding to get Shirley to venture an opinion about the shows we had just seen, but it was always amazing to me how often she had almost the identical reaction that I did, though for often very different reasons. Shirley would happily endure my endless prattle about what we had just seen, and when she laughed, or made a counterpoint, she often helped me decide which comments should make it into print when writing a review.
With new playwrights there were many times when we would both scratch our heads as to what the point was of two hours in a darkened theatre. She got pretty good at tagging shows as “another slice of life” or “morality tale”. Like so many, she loved musicals as well as comedy and farce, because she loved to sing the tunes, and laugh at the humor.
Even so, drama was the form that touched her the most. She told me her favorite play this year was Best of Enemies at Barrington Stage. And her all-time favorite was Love, Valor, Compassion done several years ago at the Berkshire Theatre Festival.
To have found such a constant companion a short time after I arrived in North Adams was a blessing indeed. I am so glad I followed the laughter emanating at a lunch that was coming from her table, and that when I sat at that same table as her the following month we quickly became friends. My time in the Berkshires has been made so much more meaningful because I knew her, and there are many more like me who will never forget her wit, wisdom and loving nature.
And so goodbye, Shirley. You filled my life with lightning.
A Celebration of the life of Shirley Gomez will take place on October 29, 2011 at 6:00 at the Freight Yard Pub in North Adams. All are welcome.