Shirley Wight Keeney

By Robert A. Hageman

If you happen to drop by the Carter House (home of the Summit Historical Society) some Tuesday morning between the hours of 9:30 a.m. and 12:00 noon, you will probably run into one of our long time dedicated volunteers and former board members - Shirley Wight Keeney. She is "Miss Knowledgeable" when it comes to the history of Summit, and her volunteer service to the entire community has been outstanding over the years.

Shirley came to Summit in 1918, by way of Overlook Hospital, born into the Wight family who resided at 32 Waldron Avenue. Her father, Frank C. Wight, was editor of the nationally known publication "Engineering News Record" in New York. Sadly, Mr. Wight died at the young age of forty-five in 1927. His wife was left with two boys and two girls - one of them the nine year old Shirley. Fortunately, an aunt and grandmother helped and lived with the young family. Remarkable for the time, all four of the children went to college.

Shirley enrolled at Oberlin College in Ohio, after attending Lincoln School and Summit High School where she graduated in 1935. When Shirley was growing up on Waldron Avenue, there was a family on the next block named Keeney. They had a son, Benson, who was the same age as Shirley. Their relationship grew into a romance, and the two married on Christmas Day in 1940 after Benson graduated from Hobart College. They had three children: David, who lives in Summit; Cynthia, who lives in Berke- ley Heights, and Carol, who passed away at the age of twenty-five.

Following World War II, when Benson served in the Merchant Marine on a Liberty Ship, the couple purchased a house at 73 Passaic Avenue. It had been a school (Elkwood Play School), but long before that it was the Elkwood Railroad Station, built in 1855 and located at the intersection of Kent Place Boulevard, New Providence Avenue, and Mount Vernon Avenue.

The Elkwood Railroad Station was shutdown in 1905 due to reduced rail traffic. It remained at its original site until 1910 when it was acquired by Captain Ri chard Greene. He moved the station to 73 Passaic Avenue by having it pulled along greased logs. It was then converted to a family residence and eventually the Elkwood Day School. The Keeneys purchased the house in 1947.

Shirley Keeney's volunteer work and community service began as a pre-schooler in Summit. At the time, her mother and aunt were active in the Fortnightly Club especially in its Welfare Branch. Shirley would help them deliver food to the needy and ill.

Shirley later served as President of the Summit Convalescent Committee in which children and young adults regained their health at a home located on Mountain Avenue. The home no longer exists, but the Committee does and its dollars are used to help with the convalescent activities of various social agencies in Summit such as the Speech School, the Child Care Center, Overlook Hospital and SAGE.

Support for volunteer nursing groups has also played an important role in Shirley's life. She headed the Visiting Nurse Association of Summit, New Providence and Berkeley Heights before its activities were assumed by Overlook Hospital. She was also on the board of the Adele Lynch Nursing and Allied Health and Scholarships Committee which gave nursing scholarships to residents in Summit, New Providence and Berkeley Heights. Adele Lynch had been head nurse of the Visiting Nurse Association. This group's responsibilities were taken over by Overlook Hospital two years ago.

As a member of the Overlook TWIGs, Shirley was on the founding committee of the Overlook Follies (later Overlook Musical Theatre) which for many years pre- sented fund-raising musicals for the hospital.

She is also a past board member of the Summit Area Chapter of the Red Cross and an advisory member to the Summit Speech School.

The Summit Junior League was not bypassed by Shirley Keeney either. She was elected its youngest presi- dent ever in 1953-1955. During her tenure the League es tablished the Summit Child Care Center (now called the Learning Center) for the community. She is a former Chairwoman of the League's Thrift Shop where she still serves as a volunteer. During the years 1965-1990 Shirley was the Executive Secretary of the Junior League of Summit.

Her notable service to the community was recognized in 1989 when the Summit YWCA gave her an award for being one of five "Outstanding Women of the Community".

The following year, 1990, the Board of the Junior League of Summit renamed its high school scholarships the Shirley Wight Keeney Scholarships in her honor.

In 1998 she was presented with a Certificate of Special Congressional Recognition & Appreciation for her outstanding and invaluable service to the community by Congressman Bob Franks of the Seventh Congressional District of New Jersey.

During the interview for this article I asked Shirley for some words of wisdom. She sat back in the chair for a few moments, then leaned forward saying: "Although I have had some leadership positions in my life, I think I'm better as an Indian, rather than a Chief."

Such is the modesty of Shirley Wight Keeney and we thank her for her service.