On the 6th August 2019, Shirleen peacefully passed away following a short illness. To those that knew Shirleen, you'll be pleased to know she remained her usual recalcitrant, irreverent and darkly humorous self to the very end.
While ‘one of a kind’ sounds like a cliché, in Shirleen's case, it really was true and she fought fiercely her whole life against being labelled as anything. She was not someone's daughter, not someone's wife, not someone's mother, not a housewife, not an actuary and certainly not, horror of horrors, a grandmother. She was always just herself, wishing to be defined as an individual, always on her own terms. And, wherever she went, being just herself proved to be extraordinary.
Not someone’s daughter, not someone’s wife
Born on October 13th 1945, Shirleen grew up in South Africa where she delighted in always doing the opposite of what her mother wanted her to do (this is how she first developed and never lost the skill of making herself look dreadful in photos). At Wits University in Jo’burg, she met a brilliant but penniless, bare-foot, dashing young Englishman, Phil Stibbe, to whom her mother took an instant and deep dislike. Naturally, Shirl married him. Her mother did, however, manage to insist on an Antenuptial Contract in which Phil promised to donate to Shirl a ‘dwelling house to the value of not less than R15,000’ – practically a mansion in its time.
Along with pretty much all white children in South Africa, Shirl had grown up with black servants. As an adult reflecting back, Shirl would cringe with shame at how she had been raised to think about them and how she treated them. Working at the Wits University bookshop, she came across and was inspired by many of the early key figures in the anti-apartheid movement, and she and Phil became passionate and active supporters. Too passionate and active as it turned out, and with more and more attention from the police, they ended up making a swift exit from South Africa to England, leaving their degrees unfinished, and the mansion unbought.
Not someone's mother, not a housewife
In 1970, Shirl had her first child, Arran, followed three years later by Darian. For a total of eight years, she pretended to do all the things a mother was supposed to do, including handmaking cuddly toys, some of which ended up being passed down to her grandchildren. Housekeeping, on the other hand, was something Shirl never took a shine to. She blamed the fact she grew up with servants for her complete aversion to it, and regularly called herself a ‘total slut’ when it came to keeping house (this did tend to confuse younger people unfamiliar with its ancient meaning of ‘slattern’).
Bored out of her mind with the whole domestic drudgery, Shirleen switched to the benign neglect approach to motherhood and in 1978, age 33, she began what turned out to define the focus of the rest of her life: an Open University (OU) degree in mathematics.
Shirl’s love for, and ability in, mathematics was extraordinary. She took to it instantly, spending hours and hours poring over books on her desk in the bedroom, delighting in the extraordinary beauty of it, adoring the challenge of ‘difficult sums’, and squeezing out every opportunity afforded by the freedom of the annual week’s summer school where she could bingegeek maths with her hero professors. Feted by her fellow students with the epithet ‘Educating Shirleen’ (after the Michael Caine / Julie Walters’ movie, Educating Rita), she was later featured as a case study in a book entitled ‘OU Women’ about women whose lives had been fundamentally changed by the OU.
It was no surprise that after graduating with a first class honours degree, she went on to undertake a PhD at Royal Holloway and Bedford New College, regularly pootling up the M25 from the family house on Epsom Downs in her little Fiat 500, to study Number Theory (aka ‘really difficult sums’). Her thesis took over four hours to print, at a rate of 1 page every 2 minutes, on one of the very first office laser printers. As indeed he was for all of her studying, Phil was all the time watching over and supporting the process, like a hugely proud expectant father. And a few months later, Shirleen Stibbe became Dr Stibbe, an appellation she delighted in using both to avoid the defining-as-wife title of ‘Mrs’, and in the hope of being upgraded on planes.
Not an actuary
Following the PhD, Shirleen began a new career at the actuarial company, Bacon and Woodrow (now Aon). She described being an actuary as ‘for people who find accountancy too interesting’ and she was determined to liven the place up, including to help the ‘boring bunch of number geeks’ to be able to communicate with normal people from the outside world: their clients. This mission started early on when, after guffawing out loud, she had to explain why a graph labelled ‘male members broken down by age and sex’ would be deeply funny to non-actuaries.
There is little question that Shirleen (the ‘Stibbster’) was whirlwind-like in shaking the place up, with no colleague, however senior, allowed to get away with 'claptrap'. As a colleague commented on her retirement: “I think it’s fair to say the Stibbster’s impact goes way beyond retirement. I can’t remember when I first met her, but her direct, no nonsense, say-it-as-it-is style is an absolute blessing and world apart for what you would expect for someone within an actuarial firm.”
Shirleen had huge affection for her ‘boring number geeks’, delighted in causing (positive change-making) trouble and would probably still be working there if it weren’t for compulsory retirement.
Not a grandmother
Despite the fact that at work, Shirl literally denied their existence in order to avoid being labelled as a grandmother, she took enormous pleasure in her grandchildren, Inigo and Oriana, and Sen and Kaya. Whether it was bumping a baby up and down on her knee as she read rhythmic poetry, talking maths and drawing Pascal’s triangle, or splitting light with weird and wonderful prisms, Shirl loved to share her passions and delighted in their enthusiasm when they discovered something together.
The one exception to avoiding being defined, was the label ‘Open University Associate Lecturer’. She adored her job and clearly her students adored her, as she would excitedly pass on the most incredible student feedback after the day schools she ran, or gushing, heart-felt thanks after exams had finished. She combined her huge passion with an extraordinary ability to explain things in simple terms and with humour. Her website with exam solutions, quirky and fun maths, and some groanworthy jokes gets over 10,000 hits a year from all around the world.
There is no question that her work with the OU was the thing she was absolutely the most proud of, indeed she absolutely revelled in it. She once calculated that by comparing the number of hours she actually worked with the hours she was paid for, she was earning the equivalent of 58p an hour. The reality is, she would happily have paid them for the opportunity.
The final act
Phil’s death in 2012 was a terrible shock for Shirl, losing her fellow adventurer, life supporter and giggle partner of 50 years. There is no doubt she lost a large chunk of joy in her life, no longer having someone there with whom to share the brilliant feedback from her students, get angry with the world or laugh hysterically at something that tickled them both.
With a lot of time on her hands, she became a governor to Glyn School in Epsom where she was both hugely impressed by the dedication and passion of the teachers, and hugely depressed by the terrible effects of the massive funding cuts.
She also continued, of course, with the OU, where she remained both excited and engaged, and was looking forward to teaching the new course in September, despite beginning to find standing up all day to teach at day schools tiring.
Her illness came on rapidly and unexpectedly at the end of June. When she left Aon, Shirl was described as ‘fiercely irreverent, passionate and entertaining’. She remained all of those things, even as her symptoms appeared and worsened, and when she knew she would have to give up the one thing that gave her the greatest joy in life: lecturing. She faced her condition and ultimately her death with humour, pragmatism and, as any doctor who might have attempted to treat her will attest, absolutely no sentimentality or bullshit. As with everything she did, she went on her own terms, and in her own way.
Shirl’s boss at Aon said on her retirement in 2011, “Shirl has been a huge inspiration to me. I shall miss her but I’m sure her legacy will live on for years to come and I know there will always be a little Shirl in my mind telling me what the real Shirleen would think.” A sentiment shared, no doubt, by many of the hundreds of people whose lives she enriched: her students, co-workers, sons, daughters-in-law and grandchildren.
And perhaps even some of the staff at Marks and Spencer’s may once or twice momentarily pause and wonder what happened to the affable old woman cheerily complaining once a week about ‘bloody Wednesday, bloody shopping’.
If you would like to leave your thoughts or a message for Shirl's family and friends, please go to our Tributes to Shirleen page.
Shirleen's own website is at: shirleenstibbe.co.uk