If it seems like Shirin Pagels is everywhere, maybe it’s because she is. She’s the newly elected president of the ever-growing New England Lighthouse Lovers organization and also counts herself as a member of around a dozen other lighthouse-related groups. Shirin has been deeply involved in lighthouse preservation and events from Maine to the Hudson River to North Carolina.
While growing up in Severna Park, Maryland, Shirin saw Thomas Point Lighthouse on sightseeing cruises out of Annapolis, and she says her childhood home was decorated with a nautical theme including lighthouse collectibles and pictures. Shirin credits her father with fostering her interest in history, and her mother’s fun day trips sparked her love for travel and discovery. But at first, she says, she “didn’t pay lighthouses the attention they deserved.”
Following her graduation from the University of Delaware in 1998, Shirin moved up to Westchester County, New York, to pursue a career in science. In early 2000, she saw an item in a local publication advertising free tours of Tarrytown Lighthouse, complete with hot cider. This landmark was just a few minutes from her home and she attended the tour. Soon she had caught the “lighthouse bug.”
“Without that first tour, I don’t know that I’d have the interest in lighthouses that I do today,” says Shirin. For one summer, she helped at Tarrytown Lighthouse by giving tours as a volunteer with the Westchester County Parks system. Even today, says Shirin, “Every time I pass the lighthouse while crossing the Tappan Zee Bridge on my way to another lighthouse, it always brings a smile to my face.”
Shirin now lives in Norwalk, Connecticut, and works for Boehringer Ingelheim, a pharmaceutical company. New England Lighthouse Lovers (NELL), a chapter of the American Lighthouse Foundation, was one of the first lighthouse organizations she joined in 2001. “In an instant I had a new, very extended family,” she says. “My first impressions were about how nice everyone was to go out of their way to introduce themselves to me and to make me feel like a part of the club.”
Before long, Shirin was chairperson for both membership and publicity. “The more time I spend with NELL members, the more I want to do for the organization and give back to them and our new members,” she explains. NELL currently has more than 250 members, mostly from New England but also representing 23 states and Canada.
By the fall of 2004, Ron Foster had served two two-year terms as NELL president, the maximum allowed under the group’s bylaws. Shirin was elected as his replacement at the group’s fall meeting. “Jumping to president was a big leap,” she says, “but one I look at as a great challenge and potential for growth.”
NELL provides its members with opportunities to learn about lighthouses through educational programs and site visits, and also raises funds to support lighthouse preservation. Shirin believes that one of the most important aspects of NELL is “HOPE,” which stands for “Hands On Preservation Efforts.” Under this program, NELL volunteers have painted Maine’s Pemaquid Point Lighthouse and the lantern at Connecticut’s New London Ledge Lighthouse. Apart from her NELL duties, Shirin has participated in hands-on work at Delaware’s Harbor of Refuge Lighthouse and New York’s Esopus Meadows Lighthouse. She knows first-hand the value of these activities. “I’d love to see more of our group being able to look back after a project and say, ‘Hey, I helped do that,’” she explains.
Her NELL responsibilities take up plenty of time, but Shirin still finds time to help other groups as well. As a member of the board of directors of the Outer Banks Lighthouse Society in North Carolina, Shirin says she tries to “provide assistance in any means that I can. It can vary from helping to set up or take down a meeting to selling raffle tickets to distributing brochures to people I meet on trips.”
These may be discouraging times for some lighthouse preservation efforts, but Shirin remains optimistic. “I have seen many groups come through and accomplish great things,” she says. “With the shining examples of lights that have been saved, I think many more will be saved. It will just take some creative individuals to solve the money shortage.”
She’s also a firm believer in the value of exposing children to the importance of lighthouses at an early age. “The power of one child taking an interest in lighthouses can be great,” says Shirin. “As they grow and continue to share their interest with their friends and family, their interest catches on. I have seen this happen myself. So many of my friends and family now have what I call ‘Lighthouse Awareness.’ They all stop and think twice now every time they see a lighthouse.”
Shirin likens the spread of awareness to a contagious virus. “It spreads like a cold,” she says, with “each person passing it along, infecting more and more with the lighthouse bug. And the more people infected with that lighthouse bug the better. It is the infected that will band together to help preserve the lights.” And Shirin Pagels just may be the “Typhoid Mary” of lighthouse awareness.
This story appeared in the
December 2004 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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