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Son fondly recalls mom's devotion to United Way in Connellsville

| Friday, May 10, 2013, 7:06 p.m.
Fern Shawley
Fern Shawley

Jim Shawley of Mt. Pleasant cherishes the memory of helping his mother deliver cookies at Christmastime.

There were plenty of stops to make because Fern Shawley had many acquaintances — in fact, once Fern met someone, chances were good that he or she was a friend for life.

“One Christmas, she baked 125 dozen cookies and gave every single one of them away. That's just the way she was,” Jim said.

Fern was as united in her devotion to her son Jim and her daughter, Shirley Hillard of Georgetown, as she was to her career as secretary of the Greater Connellsville United Way. Many Connellsville residents remember the kindly way that Fern raised money for the nonprofit organizations that United Way assists — groups such as the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, the American Red Cross and YMCA, Catholic Charities, local recreation programs and more.

Born in 1918, Fern graduated from Connellsville High School in 1936. She held several jobs before she came to the United Way, including working for the Railway Express Agency, where she taught women railroad clerical duties.

Hired in 1969

The late Melvin Keller hired Fern as an executive secretary in 1969 to manage Greater Connellsville Community Fund, which was renamed Greater Connellsville United Way in 1983.

Interviewed by the Daily Courier in 1989, she kept a positive outlook despite the region's hard economic times. Former United Way donors such as Volkswagen, Modulus, Pittsburgh Sheet Metal and P&LE Railroad had recently closed, yet United Way soldiered on, exceeding its financial goals. Fern's sunny smile and quiet, polite approach was likely a contributor to all those contributions.

“We're raising more money now with fewer people and businesses,” she said in 1989. “That says something. It says that Connellsville people care.”

The United Way's office was tucked quietly away in the basement of Charleroi Federal Savings and Loan, along Arch Street in Connellsville. There, Fern did the dialing, typing and filing that filled her workdays.

A one-woman operation

“Fern was a one-woman operation. She is the one who kept Connellsville's United Way going all those years,” said Ruth Walters, a retired Connellsville Area High School teacher who helped distribute the cash that remained in United Way's bank accounts after Fern passed away in December 1995 at age 77.

“My mom worked up until the day she died,” said her son, Jim, who is a retired truck driver. “She loved talking to people. She was very dedicated.”

After Fern's death, Greater Connellsville United Way merged with the United Way of Westmoreland County. South Fayette United Way, which was based in Uniontown, is now a member of the same Greensburg-based agency as well.

“Small United Way chapters such as Connellsville and Uniontown found it had become too expensive to have their own administrative staff,” explained Walters, who served on the Westmoreland United Way's board of directors for 16 years.

Fayette County does have a United Way office, located in Uniontown. The office staff raises donations; however, the Westmoreland United Way administers the funding to Fayette County's eligible nonprofit groups.

Jim Shawley contacted The Daily Courier as Mother's Day approached because he wanted to honor her memory.

“I'm sure a lot of local people remember her,” he said. “Even though she's been gone nearly 20 years, I still miss her. I always will.”

Laura Szepesi is a freelance writer.

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