The remarkable Shirley Westeinde on why 80 has become the new 60

Community leader and retired businesswoman is fêted by family and friends during week-long birthday celebrations
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Shirley Westeinde, a celebrated community leader and award-winning businesswoman, turns 80 on Saturday. Photo by Caroline Phillips
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If only Shirley Westeinde had known how fun it is to turn 80, she might have done so sooner.

Family and friends have been showering the retired construction executive with copious amounts of love, attention and food all this past week. The celebrations coincide and culminate with her milestone birthday Saturday.

“I’m feeling like 80 is the new 60,” said Westeinde during an interview Tuesday in Confederation Park near Ottawa City Hall, where she was headed later that afternoon to get vaccinated against COVID-19. 

It was a cinch to spot her. Westeinde may have replaced her signature bob with a shorter, layered haircut but the proud grandmother of 10 still hasn’t lost her love of outfits that pack a colourful punch. 

Over the years, Westeinde has received the Lifetime Achievement Award from Ottawa’s business community, been appointed and served for 11 years as an Honorary Colonel with the Canadian Armed Forces, and received the Order of Canada.

The tenacious trailblazer was the first female board chair of BOMA Ottawa, the Canadian Construction Association and the Ottawa Economic Development Corp. (now Invest Ottawa). She chaired the Mayor’s Task Force on Affordable Housing and led the board of the research arm of the Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre.

Birthday wishes have been pouring in from the likes of Mayor Jim Watson, the acting Chief of Defence Staff Lt.-Gen. Wayne Eyre, CCA president Mary Van Buren and from OBJ publisher Michael Curran during this morning's Mayor's Breakfast event.

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From left, Shirley Westeinde with Betty Gittens and Maureen McTeer at the French Embassy's Bastille Day party held in July 2019. Photo by Caroline Phillips

Susan St. Amand, president of Sirius Financial Services, is hosting a virtual gathering tonight in honour of Westeinde, who’s both her friend and mentor.

It will feature a surprise performance, via Zoom, by world-renowned Canadian classical pianist Angela Hewitt. As well, St. Amand has invited a bunch of Westeinde's friends to participate, including Jacquelin Holzman, Barbara McInnes, Barbara Farber, Nancy Meloche, Evelyn Greenberg, Shirley Greenberg, Betty Gittens and Catherine Bélanger.

"Shirley is a true leader,” said St. Amand, who’s also a director on the national board of the Family Enterprise Xchange and past board chair of the Ottawa Community Foundation. “Her philanthropy and community engagement stretch far and wide.”

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Shirley Westeinde (right), seen in her mess kit at the 2019 Army Ball served for 11 years as Honorary Colonel with the Canadian Armed Forces. She's joined by fellow Ottawa businesswoman Barbara Farber, who has since been appointed a Honorary Colonel. Photo by Caroline Phillips

Westeinde, who originally hails from London, Ont., grew up during a time when little was expected of her, beyond getting married and having kids. While her two brothers were encouraged to pursue an education, she and her sister were not.

Westeinde did what she was told – right after she got herself trained as a nurse, studied public health at Western University, and took charge of a one-nurse branch in St. Thomas, for the Victorian Order of Nurses (VON).

Family has always been very important to Westeinde. She left nursing to stay home for 12 years to raise her three children: Julie, Jeff and Jonathan. She also found time to volunteer in her community in Kanata, where her husband’s career eventually took them. None of the moms on her street worked outside the home at the time, she recalls.

Westeinde was in her late 30s when she re-entered the workforce. That’s when husband John, an engineer, quit his job to go out on his own, with her helping him. She took courses in the evening and learned everything she could about how to run a business. 

Together, they built Westeinde Group of Companies, a highly successful collection of business lines that included construction, asbestos removal, real estate development and property management.

'Learn as much as I could'

Westeinde’s secret to becoming a strong business and community leader came down to working hard and taking pride in a job well done.

“I don’t feel I was ever looking to escalate my career as much as to learn as much as I could and grow as much as I could.”

She counts the late Jean Pigott, former NCC chair, politician and businesswoman, as one of her role models.

“She had a great sense of humour,” said Westeinde, recalling how Pigott would hand out home-made cookies from her office.

One challenge Westeinde had to overcome was her fear of public speaking.

“My knees would shake and my face would get red,” recalled Westeinde, who, after cramming Toastmasters into her busy schedule, became more comfortable talking to a crowd.

At times, she faced old-fashioned misogyny, which either motivated her to work harder to prove those attitudes wrong or use humour to diffuse the situation. If anything, being a woman in a male-dominated industry worked to her advantage, she believes, because organizations were looking to increase the visibility of women.

“I didn’t feel like I was held back,” said Westeinde, who was also asked to run for politics, both federally and municipally, but declined.

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Shirley Westeinde, seen at Confederation Park in Ottawa on Tuesday, March 23, 2021. Photo by Caroline Phillips

These days, there’s a new generation of Westeindes winning awards and gaining media attention. Jeff and Jonathan have grown into successful green building developers. In fact, Westeinde lives in Cathedral Hill, one of the eco-minded condo buildings that her boys built. From her “castle in the sky,” she watches the ongoing development of the exciting new waterfront community Zibi. Both sons have been involved in different stages of the transformative project, with Jeff now president of Zibi Canada.

“I describe it to people as Granville Island in the middle of Ottawa, only on a smaller scale.”

Year ago, Westeinde watched her grown children scatter around the world in pursuit of educational and career opportunities. She pined for their return, which happened in due course. It's now her grandchildren, several of whom are budding engineers, leaving the nest. Granddaughter Kirsten, who’s engaged to be married, is living in San Francisco as a software development manager for Shopify.

“You have to give them wings to fly and, hopefully, they fly back home after,” said Westeinde, who’s been participating in birthday Zoom calls with her out-of-town grandchildren. Her two youngest granddaughters, both 16, treated her to afternoon tea at Zoe’s at the Château Laurier, as part of her birthday celebrations.

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Shirley Westeinde, seen with some of her family and their friends, attended Fight for the Cure in 2018 to support son Jeff as he boxed in the ring in support of the Ottawa Regional Cancer Foundation. Photo by Caroline Phillips

Westeinde doesn’t remember many octogenarians who were still around when she was younger. Now, she has no shortage of friends living well into their 80s, 90s and longer due to healthier lifestyles and medical advances. 

As an avid walker, Westeinde is making the most of the remaining time she has with her knees before undergoing, next month, the first of two replacement surgeries. She has no plans to follow in the footsteps of pal Betty Gittens, 82, who marked her 80th birthday by walking the famous 800-km Camino de Santiago trail in support of The Eldercare Foundation of Ottawa.

“I’m afraid I won’t be able to top that,” she demurred.

But, as St. Amand told OBJ, Westeinde has given generously to the Ottawa Community Foundation through her family fund, and has given the gift of giving to her children and grandchildren.

– caroline@obj.ca