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Phyllis Shapiro, McGill education professor and wife of Principal-Emeritus Bernard Shapiro, passed away November 20 after a brief battle with cancer. She was 67.
Phyllis was born in Montreal and became an accomplished scholar (Dip.Ed'54 McGill; B.Ed.'61 Sir George Williams (Concordia); Ed.M.'63 and Ed.D.'69, Boston University). She taught for Montreal's Protestant school board, in the U.S. and at University of Toronto until moving to Montreal with Bernard when he became Principal in 1994.
Many at McGill remember her warmth, sociability and high spirits.
"Phyllis had a unique ability to connect with her students, her colleagues and her community, and to care about them," Principal Heather Munroe-Blum said. "When McGill gained Bernard as Principal, we also received a tremendous gift in Phyllis — in her deep commitment, passion and pride for McGill," she added.
She specialized in elementary school curriculum, particularly reading and language arts such as poetry. Dean of Education Roger Slee said that Phyllis was "a vivacious and extraordinarily energetic teacher who commanded respect and affection from students and colleagues. She was just wonderful."
On the days she went to supervise her students' practicums in schools, she'd get up early to bake cookies for them, Slee said.
She was a good student, too. Dean of Agriculture and Environmental Studies Deborah Buszard took an intensive French class with Phyllis. "She was a natural animator," Buszard said. "We had to tell a fairy story from our own culture and Phyllis told the tale of Little Red Riding Hood. She had a costume — a scarf and shopping basket that she'd pull items from — she had us in fits!
"She was so prepared to have fun, and she made everyone learn more. She was the sparkle to Bernard's depth."
Bernard and Phyllis wed in 1957, and their love for each other was legendary. Professor Derek Drummond said that he "never met a more intensely loving couple than the two of them." But they exemplified the axiom opposites attract. Drummond remembers jokingly introducing them as the "bubbly effervescent Bernard and the quiet retiring Phyllis." At parties, Phyllis would always be in the centre of the room surrounded by laughter. Bernard would stick to the periphery, only venturing to the centre to find her, he said.
Tom Thompson, advisor, Development and Alumni Relations (DAR), remembered "when Principal Shapiro and Phyllis were in the receiving line for their first Chancellor's Dinner for leadership donors, you could see that Phyllis not only knew almost everyone but had a thoughtful comment for them. And this ability of Phyllis to complement Bernard's McGill presence so enthusiastically became a hallmark of her role as 'First Lady of McGill'."
Don McGerrigle, executive director, DAR, traveled often with the Shapiros to meet alumni. He remembers one time in Hong Kong before dinner, Phyllis mused that she would like to ask a certain donor for a fellowship for the Faculty of Education. Bernard cautioned her, saying that her target had already made a very generous donation just recently. "Oh don't worry, I'll be subtle," she said.
Within a moment of sitting at the table she leaned over to the donor and said. "I have to ask you something — would you establish a fellowship in Education?"
McGerrigle said, "She could get away with that because she was so warm and believed in what she was doing. She was one of the best ambassadors we ever had."
Irena Murray, now director of the British Architecture Library after 35 years at McGill, says that Phyllis could put a good spin on absolutely anything. They both loved art, and planned a trip with another friend to Washington to see a Vermeer exhibit. After being stuck in a plane for an hour and a half, the flight — and trip — was cancelled. "Phyllis organized a rebound lunch with us at the Ritz, to pretend that we'd seen the show, and we had a discussion about Vermeer. She made a moveable feast of it." This ability to rewrite a "crummy situation" into a joyous occasion was a natural gift, Murray said. "She constantly marveled at her good fortune, but up close you could see what she was doing was incredibly difficult.
"She saw the big picture of life and managed to illuminate it."
Honora Shaughnessy, executive director, alumni relations & advancement, said, "What stands out is her ever-present good humour. When Phyllis first found out she was ill, she sent me an email, [writing] 'McGill has always been so good to me — unbelievable. Think of all the wonderful experiences I've had with travel all over the world, teaching the best students, and having the very best colleagues. I have been so lucky.'"