Shout Out to Shirley

I’d like to recognize someone who is not only my mentor, but one of my very dear friends: Shirley McQuillis Iscrupe, Pennsylvania Room Archivist at the Ligonier Valley Library.  Since we met almost 9 years ago, I have learned a lot about public history and the Ligonier Valley from Shirley.

My first visit to the Ligonier Valley Library was during the spring of 2004, when I was completing research on Idlewild Park for my first assignment from the Westmoreland County Historical Society (published in the September 2004 edition of Westmoreland History Magazine). That’s when I met Shirley.  I remember being nervous about approaching her not because she was intimidating (on the contrary, she is the nicest and most gracious person!) but because I was only a few months into my freelance writing career and very shy and awkward about approaching new people and asking questions.

Almost ten years later I continue to visit Ligonier and spend time in the Pennsylvania room, helping Shirley with various projects including the PA Room’s annual historical photo show, seeking her advice on my own writing and research projects, eating goodies and chatting about our lives.

Shirley McQuillis Iscrupe, proudly holding her Arthur St. Clair Historic Preservation Award
Shirley McQuillis Iscrupe, proudly holding her Arthur St. Clair Historic Preservation Award

Shirley was recognized as a 2012 recipient of the Arthur St. Clair Historic Preservation Award at the Westmoreland County Historical Society’s annual dinner this past October.  This prestigious award is given to those individuals and organizations that have made significant strides in the preservation of Westmoreland County history.  Shirley received the award for her long career in public history and her dedication to preserving the history of the Ligonier Valley.

The WCHS summarized Shirley’s career very nicely on their website:

Shirley G. McQuillis Iscrupe is recognized for her work in preserving the history of the Ligonier Valley. In a variety of ways, both professionally and as a volunteer, she has discovered, preserved, and disseminated information about genealogy and regional history, with a focus on the Ligonier Valley. Shirley graduated from Clarion University of Pennsylvania with a degree in American History and within two days was hired at Fort Ligonier. During her more than 33 years at Fort Ligonier Museum and Restoration, Mrs. Iscrupe served as Curator of Collections and was responsible for research on and care of, the fine and decorative arts, archival, library, and archaeological collections; as well as design and maintenance of the museum’s historical exhibits. She and her husband William operated Southwestern Pennsylvania Genealogical Services for many years, publishing books that are vital resources for genealogical and local history libraries throughout the county and beyond. For the past 6 and 1/2 years she has served as the Pennsylvania Room archivist at the Ligonier Valley Library where she is responsible for the development of the collection, coordinating research, organizing speakers and exhibits, facilitating the Genealogy Forum, and chairing the very successful yearly Historic Photography Shows. Featuring various aspects of life in the valley, photos and other material is solicited from the public and compiled for the shows and then copied in binders to assure on-going public benefit beyond the show’s duration. Subjects of the show have been: the Ligonier Valley Rail Road, coal mining, churches, one room schools, hotels, and farming. In the true spirit of research integrity, material is added to each topic as it is found, so no subject is ever closed.

This award is an acknowledgment of Shirley’s dedication to and passion for history and fittingly named after her most beloved historical figure, Major General Arthur St. Clair.  She’s a leading authority on the life and military career of this man, who is the highest ranking Pennsylvania officer in the Revolutionary War.  He became the first governor of the Northwest Territory and served as the civilian caretaker of Fort Ligonier after it was decommissioned.  He spent the rest of his days in the Ligonier Valley, dying in poverty.

Shirley remembers the moment she became captivated with this man and his life.  While on a drive through the valley as a child, Shirley’s father pulled the car over on Darlington Ridge Road  at the former site of St. Clair Tavern, and pointed out a rock decorated with a bronze marker denoting the site of the house where St. Clair died, noting the historical significant of that spot.

“I’ve been in love with the dude ever since,” says Shirley.  “Here is one of the founding fathers, living in my backyard, dying in my backyard, he’s right there.  He lives right there. That’s too cool.”

Shirley’s love and passion for history germinated at a very young age, thanks to her parents and grandparents.  She grew up hearing about the history of the Ligonier Valley and absorbed the stories that her family would pass around.  Her mother, Nellie Riggs McQuillis, was a schoolteacher in the Ligonier Valley for 42 years.   Shirley also remembers walking tours through local cemeteries with her maternal grandparents, listening to their stories about the people buried there.  She has dedicated her life to learning about and preserving local history.  What she says is most important and intriguing to her about history are the local and personal connections she finds through it – a value that I share.

“History is very local and very personal.  It’s right here.  You don’t have to go to Plymouth Rock or Colonial Williamsburg or Washington D.C. to see history.  You just have to look in your own backyard.  It’s here!” says Shirley.

I only hope that I can reach the heights that Shirley has achieved in my own career in writing and public history.  She is definitely a role model and an inspiration.  Thank you Shirley for all of your support and friendship!


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