Sherry A. McGowan died Sunday, February 25, at about 6:00 a.m., about an hour after her youngest sister, Candy Easton-Gough, and her husband Eugene Gough survived 30½ hours on the road from Mapleton, Maine, to spend precious moments with her, arriving at 3:15 a.m.
Sherry was born on May 11, 1946, in Richmond, VA. Her mother, Imelda Catherine Binns, gave her to the poor farm in Baltimore, MD. Soon, Imelda’s husband, Benjamin Stanley Smith, returned from service in the Navy in World War II and learned of Sherry. He found her at the poor farm and took her to care for. Still on active duty, he found Mabel Roberts, a caregiver, to care for Sherry in her home. Mabel and Benjamin raised Sherry until age 7 when Imelda retrieved her, deciding she needed someone to raise her younger children, William Miller and Linda (now) Brown. This devastated Benjamin, Mabel, and Sherry. William and his wife, Judi Irsik Miller, survive as do Linda and her husband, Eugene Brown, many nephews and nieces and their considerable progeny. Amongst that progeny, Sherry particularly loved Linda’s son, Larry Kelso.
Imelda took Sherry to Dighton, KS, following her own mother, Annie Campbell, who had gone from cloistered nun to mail-order Radio Church of God bride, marrying the kindly E. E. Campbell, Dighton’s very well-liked (if possibly slightly eccentric) trash man. Candy was born in Scott City. Candy called Sherry “mom,” before she called Imelda “mom,” and all three siblings still regard Sherry as their true mother. Sherry held Benjamin in her heart until her last breath. Imelda’s home was not one of the good homes. Sherry and her siblings survived abusive step-fathers and other men until Sherry ran away when her mother pulled her out of school to work as soon as she had completed junior high in Pueblo, CO.
Sherry lived and worked for a few months in Albuquerque, NM, until she received a tip that law enforcement had decided that she was that runaway from Pueblo, and she slipped away to Santa Monica, CA, where she lived (with brief stays in New Brunswick, NJ; Baltimore; and Los Angeles) until she turned 18 and returned to her grandmother’s home town, Dighton. After she had been working for a time, Galen Munsinger, the high school principal, persuaded her to return to school. The Women’s Auxiliary of the American Legion helped her pay for books and more. Evelyn Ashby and Pauline Fulmer were instrumental in that. Gilbert Egbert, Dighton’s pharmacist, was helpful throughout.
Sherry married Jay McGowan, graduated high school, and enrolled at KU. Jay was a good man, and they were married for ten years. While at KU, Sherry was swept up in the anti-War movement. She and her friend, Vaughn Flora, attended the National Conference on New Politics in Chicago in 1967 where Sherry was appointed Sergeant-at-Arms. At one point during the proceedings H. Rap Brown went off. The 5’2” Sherry told him to “sit down, and shut up.” He did.
Sherry was mentored by Dr. Lou Weinbaum and left KU to help him with staff development at Topeka State Hospital. She was a section secretary, a section manager, and the first director of centralized admissions at Topeka State Hospital. She was appointed admissions director to usher in the tectonic change in mental health law in which family members, police officers, nor judges could deposit any person at a mental institution unless they were a danger to themselves or others. Sherry was Topeka State Hospital’s first on-premises lawyer, where she worked under Charlie Hamm’s supervision for a year after attending Washburn Law School.
She then served as Director of Breakthrough House which had been shuttered between Directors. She started Breakthrough’s housing program. After that, she became Director of Community Mental Health Programs for the State of Kansas, where she worked tirelessly to buffer the harm caused by “deinstitutionalization” of mentally ill persons (mental health’s other, corresponding tectonic shift) by developing and expanding mental health services in local communities such that they all everywhere provided services to more than the “worried well,” and the severely and persistently mentally ill had some place to go. In that capacity, she put together a statewide housing conference. She persuaded another mentor, Michael Harrington, to come to Kansas and speak at that conference.
In 1985, Sherry and her husband of 39+ years, Richard Benson, went to work selling real estate. Richard survives. She sold approximately 1,000 homes and worked until she could no longer walk, much less drive. She sold a few houses even after she could no longer walk or drive. For a time in those years, she served as Director of the Topeka Housing Authority and in other capacities.
Sherry served on the Ottawa University Alumni Board of Directors, and on many boards among them the Boards of what is now Valeo Behavioral Health Care, Topeka’s Parkview Hospital and the YWCA.
She served on the National Board of "REALTORS Associated with Politics" and the Board of the National Association of REALTORS Affordable Housing Task Force, and was involved in much REALTOR work on affordable housing, including her work with other Topeka REALTORS and Home Builders driving nails, and personally building a house for Habitat for Humanity.
Sherry was very involved in Democratic politics. In one capacity or another, she attended every Democratic National Convention between Adlai Stevenson and John Kerry that yielded up a nominee that failed to win the Presidency after being nominated. She served as Kansas’ Democratic National Committeewoman from 1980–88. She managed a number of election campaigns, almost all of them successful.
Sherry organized “rap groups” for Women Aware, an early Topeka feminist organization. Her own group was ongoing for decades, and the participants remained sisters to one another.
Sherry was quite ill for many years before she died. She had a wound that was open down to her spine for the ten years immediately preceding her death.
Sherry had profound faith in God, and had quite a little bit of magic about her, too. She was Godmother to Vaughn’s (and Rose Flora’s) oldest son, Troy Flora. But Troy and his siblings Trent Flora and Trina Hand, will tell you quite earnestly that Sherry was all of their “fairy Godmother.” Sherry believed that a guardian angel looked over her when she ran away and always, and that is how she somehow survived. She saw her guardian angel with her own eyes. There can be no doubt that her prayers were answered over and over again as she escaped death over and over again in recent years.
Sherry was survived not only by the relatives listed above but by many, many friends.
A memorial service will be at 9:30 a.m. , Saturday, March 3, at Penwell Gabel Mid-Town Chapel at 1321 SW 10th Avenue in Topeka.
Memorial contributions may be sent to Valeo Behavioral Health Care or the YWCA.
To leave a special message for the family online, please visit www.PenwellGabelTopeka.com