Up to age 100, Shirley Meagher walked, sharing the change she found with St. Jude, but no more, sadly
Step after step, day after day, Shirley Meagher walked.
She walked for exercise. And she walked for St. Jude.
During her daily stroll, she would scan her neighborhood for coins, which she collected for the annual telethon for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Over the years, all her picked-up coins likely amounted to thousands of dollars — even into this year, her 100th.
“I walk because I think it’s good for me,” she told me this summer. “And I enjoy it. Picking up pennies is just a bonus.”
‘I grew up during the Depression. And by golly, we walked’
And knowing Shirley was certainly a bonus. I met her several years ago during one of her morning jaunts. Afterward, we’d trade emails now and then, about this and that, sometimes with updates on her walks.
But no more. Last month, as rain fell on her morning walk, Shirley was struck by a car and killed.
It’s hard to imagine a Peoria without Shirley Meagher out and about. Walking had been part of Shirley’s life since childhood.
“I grew up during the Depression. And by golly, we walked,” she told me with a chuckle. ‘’I lived a block from Peoria High School. And we walked downtown, we walked to the library, we walked everywhere.”
After graduating from Peoria High, Shirley got married and raised five children. Divorced at age 44, she took a new route: She went to college. In 1967, she enrolled as one of the first students at the new Illinois Central College, then earned an education degree from Eureka College. She parlayed that diploma into 17 years of teaching kindergarten at St. Patrick Catholic School in Washington.
Her path took other detours — some good, some otherwise. Always wanting to stretch herself, she learned to speak Chinese. Along the way, she was diagnosed with cancer. Beat it.
Longevity runs in her family. Several relatives lived well into their 90s, sometimes beyond.
“We have genes that don’t want to quit,” she said.
Over all her decades, she kept walking. Twelve years ago, at just 88 years old, she moved into the Buehler Home in Peoria. She set out on a new route that was about one-and-a-half miles round-trip.
Along the way, she would sometimes say the rosary or admire flowers, making for a pleasant and rhythmic journey. Well, for the most part. At the sight of litter, she often would slam to a stop.
“I can’t stand litter,” she groused during a summer walk with me. She leaned over to grab a discarded fast-food cup, which she eventually would toss into a trash barrel.
She couldn’t pick up all the litter out there. But she did what she could.
Mostly, though, she kept her eyes peeled for treasure: lost coins. Some days, she’d find just a penny or two. Other days, she’d pick up nickels, dimes or quarters. Her biggest haul: a $5 bill.
It all added up, in a jar she kept in her apartment. Plus, residents at Buehler and elsewhere knew about her daily search for coins. So, they’d donate to her jar as well. She kept no running total over the years. But for the last telethon, she raised about $600 for St. Jude.
“I like what they do, how they don’t charge (for medical care),” she said. “It isn’t the only charity I like or even contribute to. But it’s the only one I really walk for.”
Her comments made me think about all those remarkable runners who cover long distances once a year to raise money for St. Jude, an effort as commendable as it is impressive. But whereas they often do their work amid a police escort and TV cameras, Shirley Meagher hustled along, all by herself, in obscurity. And she smiled all the way.
Not that she wasn’t social. At Buehler, she’d make little hanging decorations for holidays — bunnies at Easter, Santas at Christmas — to hand out to neighbors.
But her morning walk was almost always a solo adventure, mostly quiet and entirely peaceful. Each weekday’s walk ended at the 7 a.m. Mass at
St. Philomena Catholic Church.
She didn’t get there Aug. 11. That morning, amid steady rain, she walked near a shopping area where she’d often found coins. As she crossed University Street, she was hit by a car, likely dying instantly, according to the coroner.
Stunned by the news, I looked back at some of her emails from this year. A few involved a story she’d help with regarding a cousin, a World War II hero, who died months ago at Buehler Home at age 101. After the story ran, she was kind enough to email me this:
“I truly appreciate you and what you do.”
Right back at you, Shirley, in spades.