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Joan Shanahan Symmes

Died: March 22, 2019

Joan Shanahan Symmes died Friday, March 22, 2019 in Winchester, Virginia. She was the daughter of Alice Henrietta Pearsall and John Joseph Shanahan, who moved from Brooklyn, New York, to Norfolk during World War I where her father worked in the naval shipyards. The son of immigrants from Cork, Ireland, he had left sc…read more

Joan Shanahan Symmes died Friday, March 22, 2019 in Winchester, Virginia. She was the daughter of Alice Henrietta Pearsall and John Joseph Shanahan, who moved from Brooklyn, New York, to Norfolk during World War I where her father worked in the naval shipyards. The son of immigrants from Cork, Ireland, he had left school early to help support his family. He never forgot his impoverished childhood and used his position as a successful plumbing contractor to support poor children in Norfolk. Joan would fondly reminisce about his kindness, often scooping her up with friends for a day at the beach, among other fun excursions.

In 1947, Joan graduated from the College of William and Mary with an undergraduate degree in English. Early in her senior year, she and her future husband, Harrison Matthews Symmes, met at William and Mary at the wedding of mutual friends. Both attested to an instant connection, and shortly after her graduation, they were married on June 28, 1947, at the Wren Chapel of William and Mary.

A veteran of World War II, her husband had just been accepted into the U.S. Foreign Service. His wartime service in North Africa had stimulated his interest in the Middle East, which became the focus of their Foreign Service career and their family’s life. In 1947, they set sail on a Danish cargo ship for their first posting to Alexandria, Egypt, which was then still ruled by King Farouk. Joan often chuckled about the King on his yacht in Alexandria harbor watching women bathers through binoculars. The hedonistic atmosphere of this period, complete with an exotic population of White Russians, ballerinas, intelligentsia, displaced royalty, and many refugees, was a striking revelation for her.

Joan and her husband moved from Alexandria to Damascus, Syria, which they both claimed as their favorite posting. The history of unrest in Syria, coupled with the most recent fighting and destruction of large parts of Damascus, deeply saddened her. Tours back in the United States bracketed their next overseas assignments – to Kuwait in 1953, when it was still just a desert kingdom on the brink of oil riches; and then in 1959 to Benghazi and Tripoli, Libya, which was then ruled by King Idris before his later overthrow by Muammar Gaddafi. These assignments showed her pluck, as the primitive living conditions required her to bake bread, boil water, battle scorpions, fleas, and bed bugs, and other activities more typical for a pioneer than a 20th century American woman. After another tour in the U.S., she and her family had their final overseas posting to Amman, Jordan, in 1967, where her husband served as U.S. Ambassador until 1970. Although the living conditions were more civilized, the dangers and stresses were far greater, requiring body guards and other serious security measures.

After her husband’s retirement from the Foreign Service in 1974, Joan and her family lived briefly in Brattleboro, Vermont, before returning to Virginia for good. In 1985, they finally retired to Fauquier County, Virginia, where they were active stewards of their 40-acre property, “Dry Pond Farm,” just outside the village of Upperville. Her husband maintained extensive gardens, and Joan used its produce in the varied cuisine discovered during their travels. They were active congregants of Trinity Episcopal Church in Upperville, where she ran the Thrift Shop and served on the Altar Guild, using flowers from their gardens. Their last years at the farm were spent enjoying the gardens, volunteering at the Virginia State Arboretum, entertaining friends and family, knitting and needlepointing, and closely following political and international events. In 2003, they moved to an independent-living cottage at Shenandoah Valley Westminster Canterbury (SVWC) in Winchester, Virginia, which was her last home.

After the death of her husband in 2010, Joan continued to show her intrepid spirit by going on a hot-air balloon ride to celebrate her 85th birthday, and taking a train trip with friends across the Canadian Rockies to see the glaciers. She also wrote biographies of new SVWC residents, belonged to two book groups, played croquet, and took Bridge lessons. Despite declining eyesight and mobility in her last years, she continued to read, work out in the SVWC fitness center, and meet weekly for dinner with friends.

She is survived by three children, five grandchildren, and one great-grandson. Rather than a memorial service, she requested that her ashes be distributed by her family with those of her husband at Dry Pond Farm. In lieu of flowers, donations in her name may be made to the Senior Living Foundation of the American Foreign Service and the Friends of the State Arboretum.

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Memorial Information

Memorial contributions may be made to:

Senior Living Foundation of the American Foreign Service
or
Friends of the State Arboretum


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