Thursday, 09 July 2020

Henley Rotary Club and Rotary Club of Henley Bridge

DISTINGUISHED local resident Dame Stephanie Shirley, a well-known entrepreneur and philanthropist, received a standing ovation at Leander Club on Tuesday evening last week when she spoke at the Founder’s Night joint meeting of Henley’s two Rotary clubs.

Henley Rotary Club secretary Philip Fletcher was club president in 1997 when he suggested that both clubs should meet together to mark the 50th anniversary of the death of Rotary founder Paul Harris, who had died in January 1947.

The clubs resolved to have their joint meeting as near as possible to February 23 each year (the date of the founders’ first meeting in Chicago in 1905) and undertake hosting alternately.

For this year’s gathering (the 23rd), it was the turn of the Henley club to act as hosts, with president Peter Thomson taking the chair.

Dame Stephanie opened her talk by congratulating the Rotary movement on its achievements.

She went on to describe how, as a child of five, she and her nine-year-old sister had arrived in this country on the Kindertransport, organised by the Refugee Children’s Movement, just prior to the Second World War.

After her education, which did not include university but six years of evening classes to obtain an honours degree in mathematics, she became heavily involved in the early world of computers and founded her own software company.

In her early years in business, during which she recruited many women to work for her, quite often working from home, she adopted the name “Steve” Shirley to assist in what was then a male-dominated environment.

Dame Stephanie said she had married in 1959 and that she and her husband Derek were hoping to receive a card from the Queen later this year to mark their diamond wedding anniversary.

The couple’s son Giles was diagnosed as autistic in 1966 and, after being looked after by his parents at home throughout childhood and early teenage years, he went to Borocourt, a special hospital at Kingwood Common, near Henley.

Borocourt was closed in 1992 but five years earlier, his parents had moved him to within a mile of the
hospital.

This was just before the formation of the Kingwood Trust, which Dame Stephanie set up to provide support for autistic and disabled young people.

Sadly, Giles died at the age of 35 in 1998, having been in the trust’s property for 11 years during which time his parents had moved from their house in Buckinghamshire to Henley to be closer to him.

Since then Dame Stephanie has been the instigator of a number of charities, principally the Shirley Foundation, which she set up in 1996 with her own funds not long after she retired from business.

The Kingwood Trust is still in existence, although it is now called Autism at Kingwood. Signed copies of Dame Stephanie’s autobiography, Let it Go (first published in 2012, with a special edition brought out last year), were on sale at the dinner.

All proceeds from the sale of the books went towards Autism at Kingwood, as did the proceeds of the raffle, which raised £250.

Malcolm Leonard, president-elect of the Rotary Club of Henley Bridge, proposed the vote of thanks.

Earlier, he lit the candle of friendship before his club’s president, Paul Harrison, said grace. Mr Fletcher recited The Last Accolades and Mr Thomson gave the final toast, “Rotary the world over”.

For pictures from the meeting, see page 32.

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