Tofino profile: Shirley Langer
by Brittany Smith, Tofino
Shirley Langer arrived in Tofino on a moonless night in 1979, with a friend who refused to tell her where they were going. They drove to the parking lot at the bottom of First Street and her friend called a water taxi. When the boat arrived, Shirley climbed aboard. As they approached Wick Island, where they were to spend the next few days visiting, the driver of the boat turned to Shirley and said: "Okay, lady, when I say jump, you jump." And on that inky dark night, surrounded by dog-teeth sharp rocks, Shirley Langer jumped. When the sun rose the next morning, she looked out at the tremendous beauty that greeted her and vowed that someday she would return here to live.
Shirley moved to Tofino in 1995, after a three-year term as mayor of the city of Belleville, Ontario. When asked why she decided to run, Shirley tells me that many people wanted to unseat the mayor who was in office at that time, but no one else was willing to do it. So even though she was unseasoned in the world of politics, and wasn't quite convinced she'd win the election, Shirley jumped in. She remembers telephoning her daughter Valerie, who was living in Tofino at the time and saying: "My God, Valerie, I'm in danger of winning."
Shirley threw everything she had into her three years as mayor. She focused on tackling issues of development, the environment, and supporting the arts. It was a tough time for her, struggling against people who were resistant to change. These issues are still important to Shirley, but now she prefers to advocate as a citizen. She feels that sadly, the political system tends to ignore or twist important things, so that many people in office end up frustrated.
At this point, our interview is interrupted by a young man who comes in to offer me a mug of hot chocolate. He's one of a group of university students, budding forest activists Shirley's opened her house to for the weekend. I sip the sweet liquid and take a moment to glance around at the walls of Shirley's office, decorated with photographs of family members and friends, and pictures of endangered forests and animals. There's a dried oak leaf hanging on the wall above her desk. Beside me are shelves filled with books and records.
When we begin to talk about music, Shirley's whole demeanour changes. Her smile widens. Her eyes sparkle like the flecks of gold thread running through the scarf tied around her neck. Shirley's always regretted not pursuing a career as a singer. When she was a girl, in her birthplace of Ingersoll, Ontario, Shirley would play her favourite jazz records, singing along with the likes of Sarah Vaughn and Ella Fitzgerald. But she never performed in front of anyone. Her singing was always done in secret.
Roll the years forward to June 2005. Seventy year-old Shirley decided the time had finally come to pursue her dreams of music. She tracked down Robert Mari, a piano player from Victoria, and put together a playlist of twenty jazz songs. Shirley tirelessly promoted the show. She hung posters that were so attractive, people kept stealing them. After years of singing in secret, Shirley's time in the spotlight had arrived. Shirley Langer and the Robert Mari Trio played at the community theatre to a packed house. "The band said it was hard to believe it was my first performance," she declares, proudly.
Shirley's currently planning a second performance for this coming June, titled: Shades of Jazz and Blues.
What's your favourite jazz song? I ask.
Her answer: "God Bless the Child, a song written for Billie Holiday. It's a poignant song about poverty and social injustice."
During the four years that Shirley's been writing profiles for Tofino Time, she's interviewed at least 26 community members, including Freedom, a German shepherd who became something of a celebrity. Shirley enjoys unearthing interesting tidbits about people who we may see all the time, but never really get to know.
So what are some things about Shirley that people may not know?
She's fluent in Spanish. She's met Fidel Castro. She's written a novel.
Shirley's historical novel about Cuba is titled The Brigadista. It tells the story of a young volunteer teacher (called brigadista), one of 100,000, who over seven months in 1961 teach a million illiterate Cubans to read and write. At its core, it's a story about the energetic power of youth and what they can do if given the opportunity. She feels that teenagers have an especially difficult time in our society because until they reach adulthood, they have little social relevance.
Feeling essential is also becoming more and more important to Shirley as she gets older.
"I don't want to become redundant," she says, "So many elderly people fade into the background in our culture. It's only by force of personality, by expressing and giving what you've got, that you remain vital."
I ask how she plans to stay vital.
"Definitely by being socially relevant," she says. "I'll continue writing - and dancing. I want to dance for the rest of my life. And I want to live in Spain for a year."
My final question for Shirley, is how she'd like to be remembered in the Tofino community.
"As a vivid person," she says, smiling.
Brittany Smith is a writer, dreamer, and art enthusiast who thinks that porch swings are the most fun you can have.
Tofino profile of Shirley Langer, who arrived in Tofino in 1979. Written by Brittany Smith for Tofino Time Magazine.