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Havre de Grace community dynamo Madelyn Mitchell Shank dies at 87

Madelyn Mitchell Shank, an energetic community leader who was instrumental in starting several Havre de Grace museums and events, died Oct. 12 at age 87.
Madelyn Mitchell Shank, an energetic community leader who was instrumental in starting several Havre de Grace museums and events, died Oct. 12 at age 87. (Submitted photo)

Madelyn Mitchell Shank, a lifelong Havre de Grace resident who was the founder of her hometown's iconic Candlelight Tour of Historic Houses and was instrumental in getting the Havre de Grace Decoy Museum going, died Oct. 12 at age 87.

"She was just a true Havre de Grace girl," said Maryland Planning Secretary David R. Craig, Havre de Grace's former mayor and former Harford County executive, adding that Mrs. Shank was "involved with so many" things.

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"She was always just very good about moving forward," Craig said. "She was always very friendly, very social, always willing to talk to you, give advice on things."

Mrs. Shank's father, R. Madison Mitchell, was a master waterfowl carver, certainly Havre de Grace's best known practitioner of the art – if not all of Maryland's.

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While not carving waterfowl decoys in his small shop, R. Madison Mitchell made his living as an undertaker. His daughter, a 1945 graduate of Havre de Grace High School, followed him into that business, becoming the first woman in Maryland to receive a state mortician's license in 1950. She was active in the funeral services business for the next 50 years.

In June, when she and her younger brother, R. Madison "Mitch" Mitchell Jr. were honored by the Harford County Council as Harford Living Treasures, Mrs. Shank fondly recalled working with her father at the funeral home, while conceding some people might find that a bit odd.

"I think one of the best things that happened to me was working with my father at the funeral home," she said.

Known for being feisty and opinionated, Mrs. Shank took a keen interest in her hometown and its heritage and earned a well-deserved reputation for getting things done.

Current Havre de Grace Mayor Bill Martin said he met Mrs. Shank about a decade ago while on the board for the Lock House Museum, in which both Mrs. Shank and her husband of 62 years, Ellsworth B. Shank, who survives her, were active for decades.

The annual Candlelight Tour, held each Christmas season since 1972, was started to raise funds for the preservation of the lock house in the city's McLhinney or North Park, the southern terminus of the old Susquehanna & Tidewater Canal that ran between Havre de Grace and Wrightsville, Pa. The event continues to support the museum.

"She was always very nice to me," Martin said, explaining it wasn't until a bit later that he "realized what an amazing woman she was and the impact her family had on the city, and history of the city, is immeasurable."

He called the Shanks "an amazing family" that represents "everything that is quintessential Havre de Grace."

Craig also recalled first meeting Mrs. Shank through her activities with the Lock House Museum and, like Martin, he said Mrs. Shank "really played a key role in getting that started."

Mrs. Shank also served on the committee, along with Craig's mother, that in 1975 helped raised the money to erect a statue of the Marquis de Lafayette, the Revolutionary War hero whom historians credit with naming Havre de Grace. The project was initiated by Craig, then teaching history, to recognize the approaching U.S. bicentennial in 1976 and Havre de Grace's tie to the Revolution.

Patrick Vincenti, a Harford County councilman and Havre de Grace native whose family has long been a leader in the city's waterfowl carving industry, said he met Mrs. Shank in the early 1970s, while visiting her father in his decoy shop.

Vincenti said he also worked closely with her at the city's Decoy Museum in the 1980s, when Mrs. Shank was the prime mover in nurturing the then fledgling museum, which overlooks the historic ducking grounds on the Susquehanna Flats.

"She was an integral part of the museum," Vincenti said, noting that Mrs. Shank's father put together an endowment fund for the museum before he died and she served on the fund's board.

"She's just been a great lady to work with. She is very, very knowledgeable in Havre de Grace history," he said.

Vincenti also called Mrs. Shank, who was also involved in starting the local chapter of Soroptimist International, "an integral part of the nonprofits in town."

"She has always been a very strong supporter of volunteerism and she didn't just talk the talk, she walked the walk," Vincenti said. "She was very giving of her time, energy and treasure."

Mrs. Shank was the mother of E. Mitchell Shank, a former Harford County councilman and Havre de Grace City Councilman, who also survives her. Her other son, John Andrew "Andy" Shank, predeceased her.

A viewing will be held on Friday, Oct. 16, from 1-4 and 6-8 p.m. at Zellman Funeral Home, P.A., 123 S. Washington St. in Havre de Grace.

Funeral services will be held at Havre de Grace Presbyterian Church, 551 Franklin St., on Saturday, Oct. 17 at 11 a.m. Pastor Jeriah David Shank, Pastor Jane Day Stover, and Pastor George Hipkins will officiate. Pallbearers will be Robert M. Mitchell III, Robert T. Crouch, Greg Smith, Mike Transparenti, Patrick Vincenti, Scott Maslin, John O. Mitchell III, Dr. Louis Silverstein, and Ronald Mathias.

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In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made to The Havre de Grace Decoy Museum, 215 Giles Street, Havre de Grace, MD 21078 or The R. Madison Mitchell Endowment Trust, P. O. Box 796, Havre de Grace, MD 21078.

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