Shirley Isabelle Engel

Shirley Engel

Life Lived to the Fullest

SHIRLEY I. ENGEL, 85, of The Woodlands, Texas, died on October 5, almost two weeks after suffering a stroke in her sleep. The fact that Shirley has been stopped, or even slowed down, by anything at all has come as a profound shock to her family, her many friends, and almost anyone who knew her. Shirley Engel was widely admired for her irrepressible spirit, wide-ranging interests, and never-ending thirst for knowledge.

Her death follows that of her husband of 56 years, Marvin, who passed away in 2004. Shirley is survived by their sons, Joe (Katey) and Brian; grandsons And (Melissa), Nate (Kristin), Ian (Megan), and Jake (Stephanie); granddaughters Saler Axel (Eric) and Courtney Raskob (Ben); plus eight great-grandchildren. She is also survived by her sister Ruth and brother Sidney, and predeceased by her sister Janet and brothers Irving and Herb.

The youngest of six children, Shirley Isabelle Spivak was born on September 13, 1928, in the Bronx, New York, to Russian/Polish immigrants Bernard and Bella (Belkin) Spevak. Her father, a cantor at a local synagogue, died when Shirley was very young, leaving the family destitute during the Great Depression. Her sister Janet, seven years older, recalled moving frequently—often in the middle of the night. They eventually went to Albany, where other relatives were living. At just 14, Shirley began working at a local beauty shop to help out.

Shirley was 17 (and, by her own estimation, quite grown up) when, at a regular Saturday night dance at the Albany Jewish Community Center, she met Marvin. He was still recuperating from wounds suffered during World War II. Shirley thought he looked pathetic. But she liked his cleverness and quick wit. Soon they were dating . . . and after about a year, they married.  

They stayed in Albany as Marvin continued his education. A year later, Joe was born, and Marv finished his degree in engineering. He went to work designing cannons for the US Army. Brian arrived three years later. In 1956, Marvin was hired by General Electric, and he was soon transferred to Philadelphia. The Engel family was on the move, happily pursing the American Dream.

As their sons got older, Shirley looked for ways to explore her creativity and challenge herself outside the home. She became active in the League of Women Voters, sold Beauty Counselor cosmetics, and took classes in sculpture and painting—hobbies she thoroughly enjoyed. But when Shirley started learning photography, she found her passion.

It was before colleges were pursuing older students, and Shirley was almost 40. But she began taking courses at West Chester University. In 1973, she received her degree in special education, graduating the same year as her son Brian. Shirley proudly devoted the next 17 years to teaching children with learning disabilities in the William Penn School District outside Philadelphia.

After she retired in 1991, Shirley and Marvin were able to combine her love of photography with their shared love of travel. As she honed her camera skills and applied her earlier artistic training, Shirley's photos started to earn recognition, winning many local and even some national awards.

After Marvin's untimely death in 2004, Shirley continued her travels, taking a variety of cruises, plus extended trips to China, Belgium, Holland, and even South Africa—where real safaris gave her the opportunity to photograph exotic and beautiful animals on their own turf. She was thrilled.

Always outgoing, Shirley sought out friendships. She was active in American Legion Auxiliary Unit 305, Congregation Beth Shalom, the Red Hat Society, Day Trippers, The Woodlands Garden Club, The Woodlands Area Bridge Group, and The Woodlands Country Club. She also took a wide range of courses at Lone Star College.

At age 76, she took on a whole new role as managing partner of a small rental house business in The Woodlands. With no previous experience, Shirley learned a very tough and often technical business. Even in unfamiliar situations, she applied her wisdom, compassion, and discipline with gratifying results. As Shirley often said, "It's never too late."

A memorial service in Shirley Engel's memory will be held Monday, October 7, 2013, at Congregation Beth Shalom of The Woodlands, 5125 Shadowbend Place, The Woodlands, TX 77381 (281-362-1100; Shirley's remains will be interred with Marvin's at Arlington National Cemetery.

In lieu of flowers, the family has requested that memorial gifts be made to American Legion Auxiliary Unit 305, PO Box 9336, The Woodlands, TX 77393, c/o President Dayna Salter (; or to Congregation Beth Shalom of The Woodlands, c/o Rabbi Jan Brahms, DD, at the address above.