R. 'Polly' Shannahan

Talbot County Garden Club member whose love for history led her to become part of county's preservation movement

February 09, 2010|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

Regina Leonore "Polly" Shannahan, a lover of Eastern Shore history who became an outspoken crusader for Talbot County preservation and for the mentally ill, died Thursday from a brain hemorrhage at Easton Memorial Hospital.

Mrs. Shannahan died the day after her 93rd birthday.

Regina Leonore Flanigan, the daughter of a construction company executive and a homemaker, was born in Baltimore and raised on Purlington Way in Homeland.

After graduating from Notre Dame Preparatory School, she earned a bachelor's degree in 1939 in history and political science from Trinity College in Washington.

Mrs. Shannahan was working as executive director of the Prince George's County Girl Scouts when she joined the WAVES - Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service - during World War II.

In 1943, she married John Graham Shannahan Jr., an Easton hardware store owner, and after becoming pregnant with the couple's first child had to resign from the service, as pregnancy wasn't allowed by the Navy.

After leaving the Navy, Mrs. Shannahan and her husband, who died in 1988, settled in Easton, and she became an active member of the Talbot County Garden Club.

One of her first major preservationist battles came in the early 1950s when Mrs. Shannahan, who was joined by her garden club members, successfully fought to save an old McCrory's dime store on Washington Street in Easton that had been slated for demolition.

"She was a real steel magnolia," said a daughter, Eleanor Norris Shannahan, a National Geographic Kids researcher and writer who lives Royal Oak.

"Dressed in their hats and white gloves, those ladies were tough characters. They even browbeat the president of McCrory's into submission," said Ms. Shannahan, with a laugh.

The Talbot County preservation movement began with the Talbot County Garden Club and expanded with Mrs. Shannahan's vigilance and indefatigable persistence.

She created an awareness in business owners and public officials of the lasting value of historic buildings rather than their destruction to make way for parking lots.

Mrs. Shannahan organized house and walking tours, and made sure that plaques were installed on historic buildings and heritage tax credits were applied for.

Her efforts later led to the preservation of the James Neall House, Myrtle Grove manor house and plantation, Talbot County Courthouse, the sheriff's house and jail.

Age had not diminished Mrs. Shannahan's activism.

Last year, she was successful in sparing the Cloudsberry Kirby home at 925 Port St., which was built in 1791 and is one of Easton's earliest extant residences, from the wrecker's ball.

"Polly is single-handedly responsible for what Easton is today. Her preservation efforts can't be matched," said Shelby Mitchell, president of Historic Easton. "She was an inspiration to all of us, and her efforts can be seen all over this town."

Pete Lesher, a noted Chesapeake Bay and boat-building historian who is curator of the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, is an old friend.

"Polly was a traditional brick-and-mortar preservationist. She was unstoppable and a force to be reckoned with - a forceful advocate and not a compromiser," said Mr. Lesher.

"She was very driven about preservation issues and was well-known to every elected and public official in Talbot County and made sure preservation issues weren't swept under the rug," he said.

Mrs. Shannahan was a longtime member of the Talbot County Historical Trust, Historical Society of Talbot County and Historic Easton, and a founder of the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels.

"She was also one of the founders of the Historical Society of Talbot County and helped get it going. She helped us acquire our present building and was on our board for years," said Beth Hansen, the society's curator.

"She continued to show up at our events and openings. No matter what we did, there was Polly," said Ms. Hansen.

Last May, the Maryland Historical Trust recognized Mrs. Shannahan for her preservationist activities.

Mrs. Shannahan was equally outspoken when it came to those who suffered from mental illness and needed treatment.

In the 1960s, when Mrs. Shannahan founded the Mental Health Association of Talbot County, she found there was very little support for the organization or its work, so she resorted to her skills as a cook to draw attention to her cause and build a consensus.

"She first got people to listen by feeding them her famous roast beef," Ms. Shannahan said.

Her daughter said her mother worked hard at getting the same level of treatment for patients of mental illness as they would have with any other illness.

She was an advocate for progressive mental health legislation and worked for the development of the Upper Shore Mental Health Center. She was also a volunteer patient advocate at Eastern Shore Hospital Center in Easton.

The Mental Health Association of Maryland presented her with its Lifetime Service Award in 2007.

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