The Sparkle Lady

1 Jun

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It’s impolite to ask a lady’s age, and Shirley Whipple Koenen isn’t about to tell you hers. But she jokes that you can, more or less, figure it out when she reveals that she and her husband, Leonard, had been married 50 years as of November 2011.

They celebrated the milestone by buying an RV and taking their grown children and their families on a Disney Dream cruise.

“Is that not cool?” she asks, smiling broadly. “I have a lot of people who want me to adopt them.”

Shirley grew up in Hampton, Iowa, where she was the high school homecoming queen. She spent two years in New York after high school – as a “guidette” for NBC Studios and a receptionist for Jack Paar, an early host of The Tonight Show.

“I hate to tell people that, because it dates me,” Shirley laughs.

She returned to the Midwest, married Leonard, her high school sweetheart, and had four daughters.

College came later. Much later. She earned her bachelor’s degree from Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa, and attended Iowa State for a 1989 master’s in counseling at the same time one of her daughters was enrolled.

As a professional counselor, Shirley adopted the persona of “The Sparkle Lady” – “Feathers and sparkles are my thing,” she says – and her career allowed her to counsel children, teens, couples, and parents for 20 years in California. She also taught summer workshops at Iowa State, training other counselors to use puppets and a sense of humor in their work.

At the peak of her career, she had 150 puppets, all with names and individual personalities. She’s given away most of them over the years, but the few remaining ones travelled with the Koenens when they moved from their home in Bakersfield, Calif., to Bella Vista, Ark., in 2009.

They chose Bella Vista not so much for its seven golf courses as for its cultural attractions and healthy mix of people.

“Don’t put me in a 55-and-older [retirement community],” Shirley says. “I like having children around. My kids say I’ve never grown up.”

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