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With the death of former selectman and town clerk, Shirley lost an icon

A smiling Sylvia Shipton serves cucumber sandwiches at a Hazen Library party in 1998.

SHIRLEY – Retired town clerk and former selectman Sylvia Shipton, who died at her home late last month, was often referred to around this small town as a “character,” and it was no surprise to her. Shipton relished the title, cultivated her role.

And if almost everyone in town knew her at one time, the reverse says even more about who she was.

As town clerk for 20 years, and a selectman before that, Shipton  knew just about everybody in town, or at least who they were and where they lived.

And if she didn’t, she could find out. Which is what she’d sometimes tell people who asked.

She was a peripatetic citizen who frequented the town’s popular pit stops and added strategic check points along the way.

Her rounds in past years reportedly included chats on the Post Office sidewalk on Saturday mornings, confabs at Lambert’s Hardware Store, and drop-ins at the elementary school and Benjamin Hill Pool.

On Shipton’s watch, the town clerk’s office was information central, the go-to place for all things local, from where to buy fresh produce, to where to find a job in Shirley, Ayer or Devens.

And if a conversation ensued, she might add an advisory adage, depending on the topic. Something like, “You’ve got to choose your battles…” Or “Ask yourself if that’s a hill you’d want to die defending.”

Born in Stoneham and brought up in Ayer, Shipton was a proud Ayer High School graduate, class of 1958.

Embracing the community that became her adopted home town, she lived in Shirley for fifty years.

The stately old house in Shirley Center by the Common that Shipton shared with her husband of 57 years – Nathaniel Shipton, who survives her, along with their two adult children – is the kind of unheralded landmark a tour guide might point out, along with nearby historic sites she cherished: the Historic Meetinghouse, the old Center Town Hall and the Center Cemetery, her final resting place.

Shipton kept an eye and an ear on town affairs and wasn’t shy about taking a stand on hot button issues.

In today’s social media jargon, you could say she was an “influencer.”

She deftly dealt with differing opinions. She could, for example, with equal aplomb, support a cause while mustering help to up voter turnout, issues aside.

Shipton’s style may have ruffled some feathers, but she also built friendly relations, on the job and off.

One former town resident who shared an experience in an on-line obituary said she epitomized Shirley.

He recalled meeting her for the first time at the local hardware store. Shipton pointedly asked the owner who he was, the man said, and then struck up a conversation, one of many over the years. When they disagreed, she was always polite about it, he said.

Remembered as an avid gardener and collector of Wedgewood china and copper, she was a founding member of several town organizations, including the First Parish Meetinghouse Preservation Society, Inc., caretakers of the handsome old church on the Common that is now a community event venue.

In lieu of flowers, the Shipton family asks that donations be sent to that non-profit group in her name.

Sylvia also served on the Cemetery Commission, the Benjamin Hill Pool Committee and the Shirley Friendship Fund, a local charity noted for its holiday baskets, distributed annually to families in need.

A recent selectman’s meeting began with a moment of silence to observe her passing.