After being stranded on 9/11, Shirley Brooks-Jones gave back

Brooks-Jones started a fund for students in a small town in Newfoundland after a local Lions Club looked out for her—leading to lifelong friendships and Broadway
Shirley Brooks-Jones, 2021 (Photograph by Maddie McGarvey; Mural photograph: Courtesy of the town of Gander )
Shirley Brooks-Jones stands in front of a backdrop in Columbus, OH on July 19, 2021. Brooks-Jones was one of some 8,000 travelers whose airplanes were grounded at Gander International Airport after the United States closed its airspace on Sept. 11, 2001. (Photograph by Maddie McGarvey)

This profile is part of a series called ‘Living in the shadow of 9/11,’ which looks at how the worlds of five extraordinary people changed, twenty years later.

When she was a girl, Shirley Brooks-Jones, the eldest of nine siblings, needed a pair of glasses her family struggled to afford. It was a local Lions Club in southeastern Ohio that funded her first eye doctor appointment, and her first pair of specs. Imagine Brooks-Jones’s surreal gratitude at the age of 65 when, during a tumultuous few days that would change the course of her life, it was another local Lions Club that came to the rescue—this time in Newfoundland.

Brooks-Jones was one of some 8,000 travellers whose airplanes were grounded at Gander International Airport after the United States closed its airspace on Sept. 11, 2001. She remembers noticing the “nose to tail, wingtip to wingtip” chaos of parked planes after Delta Flight 15, which had departed from Frankfurt en route to Atlanta, touched down. She remembers the calm of the pilot as he explained that New York City’s twin towers had been attacked.

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After a 28½-hour wait on the tarmac, the stranded pilgrims were guided onto school buses that brought them to places of respite not far from the airport. When Brooks-Jones’s bus pulled up to its destination, she looked up and saw a sign: “Lewisporte Lions Centre.” Tears began streaming down her face. Another woman asked if she was alright. “I told her the Lions were still taking care of me,” she says.

When it was time to go home a few days later, Brooks-Jones was racking her mind for ideas to repay the community for taking such good care of so many strangers. “When we tried to leave some money, nobody would take anything,” she says. On the plane ride home, she and several other passengers came up with an idea to set up a scholarship fund for high-schoolers in Lewisporte.

Brooks-Jones, who lives in Columbus, Ohio, worked with the Columbus Foundation to set up an endowed fund for graduates of Lewisporte Collegiate high school. The 341 students who’ve received Flight 15 scholarships to date have gone on to become doctors, nurses, engineers and teachers. A recent recipient is on a waitlist for Ohio State University. Brooks-Jones says she’s invited the student to live with her, if they’re admitted.

Before 2001, Brooks-Jones didn’t know much about Newfoundland. Now, she is an honorary graduate of Lewisporte Collegiate, as of 2005, and a recipient of the Order of Newfoundland and Labrador, as of 2007. The Broadway musical Come From Away features a character based on Brooks-Jones. “When I got to meet the person who portrays me, he picked me up and swung me around, and tears going down his cheeks, thanking me for what I had done,” she says. “To me it’s so neat how invested these actors and the cast and crew are in what happened in Newfoundland.”

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Those few days so altered the course of Brooks-Jones’s life that she says she pinches herself every day: “How could I have been so fortunate?” The relationships that came out of the involuntary detour have blossomed over the two decades since. Brooks-Jones counts Lewisporte’s mayor and his wife among her closest friends—she jokingly refers to them as her 10th and 11th siblings—and she has been back to visit 29 times. After her 85th birthday this month, Brooks-Jones says she hopes to return for the 20th anniversary of her introduction to the place she calls her “second home.” As soon as she can make it, she says: “I’m on Air Canada, buddy.”