Thursday, May 24, 2018
One of America's Great Newspapers ~ Toledo, Ohio

Marilou Johanek

Sally McWane settled in, but never really settled down

SALLY rubbed some people the wrong way. She'd be the first to admit it. The small, wiry New Englander was a no-nonsense woman unafraid to express her opinion on anything, no matter whom it pleased or offended. Sally was born a refreshingly free spirit with a mind of her own who seemed to relish tossing convention on its head.

She was one of the few female trailblazers of her generation - or the next, for that matter - to pursue higher education. Before graduating from Smith College, she spent her junior year at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland where she met her husband. Gerould McWane would eventually teach at the Virginia Military Institute.

Later, he and Sally would relocate to the Midwest where they no doubt experienced a bit of culture shock. But they made a home in a quaint, New England-like village just south of Sandusky, where Sally taught at the elementary school and raised three children, two sons, and an adopted daughter. Still, it's safe to say Sally never really settled down.

To outsiders it may have seemed that she and her husband led an ordinary existence replete with family and friends in their placid little community. But townsfolk knew better. Sally was just naturally driven to run the show or at least be co-producer. Her feistiness, forged way back in Lowell, Mass., simply propelled her from one local project to the next.

Over the years she would throw her heart and soul into local clubs too numerous to mention with functions as varied as mothers organizing support for schools to historical groups preserving the area's past to garden, bridge, and travel clubs. She was a Campfire leader in her spare time. Perhaps it was living nearly next door to the Presbyterian minister that convinced Sally to join the church, but it was her DNA that made her the first woman elder.

In time, Sally's children grew up and moved away. In retirement she shared a modest century home in the village with Gerry and forced him to take her for regular walks around town. But life never slowed down for the indefatigable New England transplant. She was instrumental in making the local historical complex a reality.

She and a friend convinced an affluent property owner to donate a sizable portion of land to the community that is today a popular park for residents. When old age finally claimed Gerry, Sally's spark dimmed but only slightly. The fiercely independent senior refused to go quietly into the great assisted-living unknown.

She could still amble around town just fine. Those who made the mistake of asking about her health or how she was feeling would be taught a lesson in assumptions from the former grade school teacher. I first met Mrs. McWane well over a decade ago when we moved into the old farmhouse she and Gerry called home for more than 40 years.

Sally knocked on our door, invited herself in, and proceeded to give us a tour of her memories. We took mental notes of the ornate wooden cabinets Gerry had built as well as the fireplace mantels and built-in bookcases. There were the children's rooms, of course, with a small window built into one of them to improve parental surveillance.

There are the towering maple and oak trees that wondrously frame and shade Sally's house. They were planted a lifetime ago as seedlings. Mrs. McWane pointed each one out to us as if it were yesterday. She clearly loved the place that saw so much living with Gerry and the kids and admonished us frequently not to change things too much.

It's hard to miss the irony in Sally's words. For the better part of the past 96 years Sally McWane was personally involved in changing her chosen community for the better. Only recently has she conceded to the physical liabilities of a long life and moved to less independent living quarters in a neighboring town. But the village she embraced as a newcomer in 1937 will never forget her.

Last Sunday, a proclamation of the mayor in her honor was read aloud in area churches. It could have replaced any sermon delivered. Sally showed by relentless example how one person, as busy as the next, can make a community far better for just for being there.

Her determination to leave a positive mark on the place she called home for so many years is unique in an increasingly self-absorbed world. If she could, no doubt she'd wag a finger at the comfortably complacent who think building community is someone else's responsibility. Do something, she'd say. Rub people the wrong way, if you must, but make a difference for being here.

It worked for Sally McWane and the community in her debt.

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