Shirley Soltis, 72, of Johnson City, died Oct. 6.
Corinna Johnson occasionally called her mother “Shirley Hallmark.”
Master of what her daughter described as a “colossal” greeting card ministry, Shirley Soltis’ mailing list included family members, friends from work and church, students and their families, caregivers and neighbors in the Village of Johnson City where she lived.
She never missed a birthday, an anniversary or a simple opportunity to let someone know she was thinking about them.
“Shirley was all about people,” her brother, Dan Hayes said.
Her life was not without hardship, and those tough experiences helped her understand the power of kindness, and spread it around to the many people whose lives she touched.
Born the fourth of nine children to Ethel C. and Dewitt H. Hayes in Binghamton, Shirley grew up primarily in Johnson City, later attending school in Susquehanna Valley.
Shirley’s daughter said the family “did not have much more than one another,” and that shaped how she would live her life.
Early losses and tragedy
In 1964, she married U.S. Navy Hospital Corpsman Third Class Lawrence Everett Johnson. A year later he left the United States for active duty in Vietnam, and Shirley cared for Corinna, their six-month-old daughter, in the two-family home on Virgil Street in Binghamton they shared with Johnson’s parents as well as his brother, who was married to Shirley’s sister, and their children.
Back then as a young bride, she wrote letters. Every single day, she’d pen a note to her husband, and every 10 days, she’d receive one in return. Until she didn’t.
Johnson died from gunshot wounds to the head near the village of Quang Ngai on March 4, 1966, the fifth man from Broome County to be lost in the Vietnam War and the first married man, according to Press & Sun-Bulletin/pressconnects archives. He was 26. His father would die six days later of a heart attack.
Shirley was a 19-year-old widow and mother who’d lost her husband and father-in-law in the span of a week.
“Made me grow up in a hurry,” Shirley said in 2015.
She and Corinna bounced around for a few years; they went to North Carolina, Rhode Island and Ohio, lived with her sister for a time on Park Street in Binghamton, then settled into the Johnson City home where she’d raise her two children — Shirley’s son, Dan Soltis, was born in 1978 — after she remarried in 1972.
‘Not just about school lessons’
Shirley, who didn’t drive, walked to the former Lincoln Elementary School on Cherry Street every day where she worked as a teacher’s aide for the Johnson City Central School District.
“She enjoyed teaching the young minds,” Hayes said, “not just about school lessons, but life lesson things like manners and getting along with others and respect.”
Shirley loved working with children, her former colleague Alice Berretta said, and she went out of her way to help the ones in need.
In the summers, she’d run a summer reading program at the school for the neighborhood children who didn’t have books. When she once found out a student’s family was sleeping on the floor at home because they didn’t own any mattresses, she took up a collection.
When she saw a young boy come to school every day without socks or mittens, she started asking friends and neighbors if they could spare an extra pair.
“She loved being with the children, helping them out,” she said. “She took a very personal interest in their lives.”
Shirley didn’t seek out to be the leader of such causes, Berretta said, and she did a lot of her good deeds under the radar, but she didn’t shy from pulling other people on board with a cause when she needed to.
“She could be very forceful about getting things done and getting people to donate stuff,” Berretta said.
Berretta believes Shirley was compelled by her own experiences to help as many people, especially children, as she could.
“I think she knew how it was to struggle,” she said. “I think that made her realize how much some of these children did not have.”
Greeting card ministry
As a member of Johnson City Alliance Church, where fellow member Carol Waltersdorf said being a small community meant everyone was on at least one of the church’s committees, Shirley was also active.
She was a passionate participant in the church’s stamp ministry, clipping out used stamps from envelopes by the thousands and sending them to Florida to raise money for missions.
She taught Sunday school at the church, met weekly with Waltersdorf for a grandmothers’ prayer group and “anytime there was anything to do with the kids,” Waltersdorf said, “she was always willing to help.”
Shirley was a great communicator and an expert at maintaining connections with people she met. After retiring from the Johnson City Central School District, she met with her retired colleagues once a month for breakfast.
She’d call neighbors and friends she hadn’t seen in a while just to make sure they were OK, Berretta said.
And whether you were family, a friend or a former student who’d moved away, you were on what Hayes called Shirley’s “famed mailing list,” bound to receive birthday cards and “Thinking of You” cards for years to come.
You were also welcomed into her home, which Hayes called “a great place to land” for him and his brothers when they were in town.
“There was always a cup of coffee, a snack and conversation, and sometimes counsel,” he said.
Even while being treated for cancer in her later years, amid discouraging visits and phone calls from doctors, Johnson said her mother’s resilience was “remarkable.” Shirley tried to keep up with her work, continue her stamp ministry and get those cards out to let people know she was thinking of them.
“What amazed me the most was her determination to keep on going and not complain,” Shirley’s friend, Margie Avery said. “She was an amazing example to all who knew her.”
Waltersdorf called Shirley’s life a testimony, pointing to “how many people’s lives she affected, just by being kind,” and Johnson has encouraged the people she knows to carry on that ministry.
“To run with her passion for bringing happiness to others through the simple things,” Johnson said,” like always remembering a birthday or a kind and encouraging word through a ‘Get Well’ or ‘Thinking of You’ message.”
Shirley Soltis is survived by her children, Corinna Johnson (Jim Lane), Dan (Krista) Soltis; her grandchildren, Alexis and Tyler Soltis; siblings and their spouses: Emalie Tipton, Jeanne Cameron, Rose (Jim) Barton, Dan (Sue) Hayes, Charlene Boyea, Don (Beth) Hayes, Duane (Margaret) Hayes, and Evie Flynn; many nieces and nephews; great-nieces and nephews; cousins; friends, Margaret (Ray) Avery and Mildred Fitch.
In A Life Lived, we honor the lives of those who’ve recently passed away in our communities. If you would like to see your loved one featured, send an email email@example.com. Follow Katie Sullivan Borrelli on Twitter @ByKatieSullivan. Support our journalism and become a digital subscriber today. Click here for our special offers.
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