Comments by Ronald A. Feldman
There are certain persons whom one remembers from the first moment you meet them: spouses, parents-in-law, Nobel Prize winners, and Shirley Jenkins. I remember as if it was yesterday the evening that I first met Shirley. It was October 1979, and we were seated across from one another at a dinner table with half-a-dozen other social work educators. We were at an outdoor cafe on the rambling riverfront of San Antonio, Texas. Amidst some very formidable competition, Shirley's wit, vitality and vigor were instantly visible and, even, awe-inspiring. She did not merely enlighten the evening's conversation. Her elegance--both physically and intellectually--lit up the entire night. At that dinner, and ever since, Shirley demonstrated that she could be provocative without provoking others, assertive without assaulting others, and brilliant without blinding others. She did not merely light a candle in the darkness. She was a blazing searchlight with incredible range and depth who illuminated the night, and who gave it a special beauty that few can equal.
Shirley was one of the Columbia School of Social Work's most distinguished faculty members for a quarter of a century. She was an unusually talented scholar and educator who graced the faculty with her intellect and her determination. Recently, a former student of Shirely's told me about the day that a fellow student was about to give a presentation in Shirley's class. The topic was the "Unreliability of Persons Over 60 Years of Age". I don't know for sure, but I suspect that the paper was doomed to failure when Shirley, then well over 60 years of age, showed up for class with a temperature of 102 degrees, Shirley was a person who believed in courage and that one should do things well or not do them at all. She believed deeply that the well-being of humankind depends upon our capacity to harness not only the power of our hearts and our souls but, also, the power and strength of our intellect. She believed that mind could usually triumph over matter and, in all but her final days--and even then to a very substantial extent--she demonstrated the power and utility of this belief.
Shirley did not serve only the School of Social Work with great distinction. She was a statesperson within the larger social work profession. She was, in fact, a citizen of the University who served it and cared for it and, in turn, for whom the University itself served and cared. In many, many respects, she was far ahead of her time. She was a vigorous and articulate advocate of women's rights long before others. She demanded equality and "a level playing field" for women, but no more and no less. I remember on instance in which a distinguished educator suggested in Shirley's presence that perhaps academic requirements should somehow be reconsidered or modified for women faculty because, he asserted, everyone knew that women were less capable than men in mathematics and other scientific abilities. Shirley, of course, took immediate and immense umbrage at this suggestion. Indeed, her own achievements easily put such an argument to rest, and she was not shy about quickly consigning such an argument to the dustbin of academic discourse. Her standards of excellence were the highest that one can set. But, like a true educator and true social worker, she did not merely set exceptional standards and then leave students to flounder while striving to attain them. Instead, she worked with students, counseled them, helped them, and walked hand in hand with them, until they too, could meet the standards of excellence toward which she aspired, and toward which she wanted others to aspire.
At the School's retirement party for Essie Bailey, the long-time administrative assistant for our doctoral program, I referred to Shirley as a cross between Eleanor Roosevelt and Joan Rivers. Afterwards, she came up to me and said, "Can we talk?" The comparison was not an ill-suited one. Shirley did have the brilliance, the presence, and the immense breadth of vision of an Eleanor Roosevelt. And she could be as brash, as direct and as feisty as Joan Rivers. But Shirley's feistiness was of a different order. It pushed others toward excellence. It provoked homest thought, intelligent introspection, and immense integrity in one's relationships with others and, more importantly, with one's self. Hers was a feistiness that was illuminating and endearing, and that helped to light the path when others groped in the dark.
Contrary to what some may have thought, Shirley never was an "ivory tower" faculty member. She did what others thought was impossible: she informed social work practice with scientific research with the real needs and real demands of social work practice. Towards her retirement and afterwards--the term really didn't apply very well to Shirley--she helped, along with Jerome Goldsmith, Alan Siskind and others--to establish one of the most unique, and highly respected resources in contemporary social work, namely the Center for the Study of Social Work Practice. Thanks to Shirley's leadership, the Center has achieved in record time national and international recognition for its invaluable contributions to a broad range of areas.
In her last weeks of travail, I know that Shirley's days were brightened by the fact that she was designated then, now, and into the future not only as a Professor Emerita at Columbia University, but as the Founding Director of the Center. We will miss Shirley but we also must feel blessed by her innumerable contributions to the Columbia University School of Social Work, Columbia University and the Social Work Profession. We can take heart in knowing that her presence will always be with us.
Ronald A. Feldman