Shirley Little died this week. She was a statesman.

Does that seem an odd description for a lady whose aspirations for elective office never went beyond the Mount Carmel Area School Board and Kulpmont borough?

Not at all. Statesmanship has nothing to do with whether or not you've ever spoken at the United Nations. In fact, some of the world's biggest clods have done that.

The title of "statesman," denoting as it does a wise and skillful leader who has the public's best interest at heart, is rightfully bestowed on those who are not afraid to venture outside their comfort zones and align with the most unlikely partners.

Some amazing events in 1997 earned Little that "statesman" distinction. Actually, she should rightfully share that title with Nick Goretski because, during that year, Kulpmont politics was put on the back burner while the borough's own version of "The Team of Rivals" joined forces to save the former Roosevelt High School.

In 1997, Little, a Republican, was a candidate for Kulpmont Borough Council. Goretski, mayor of Kulpmont, was a Democrat, and a candidate for re-election. Goretski had defeated Little for the mayoralty four years earlier. Goretski worked as an aide to state Rep. Robert Belfanti, also a Democrat, who was then serving his 17th year in office.

Goretski and Little undoubtedly disagreed on many things over the years, but one issue was dear to both their hearts - finding a suitable use for the school, which had recently become vacant after the newly constructed Mount Carmel Area Elementary School opened.

In the early years after the Mount Carmel-Kulpmont jointure in 1964, the building, which was formerly Kulpmont's junior-senior high school, housed Mount Carmel Area's seventh- and eighth-graders. After an extensive renovation project during the superintendency of Kulpmont native Joseph B. Warner, the school had a new lease on life as the Kulpmont Elementary School, but then, two decades later, the district's two elementary schools consolidated into the new building. For the first time ever, there were no students walking through the halls of the Kulpmont school. Borough officials and residents alike were concerned, and a committee was formed to investigate long-term prospects for the building.

In early 1997, contacts between Belfanti's office and Wilkes University leaders about an unrelated matter led to a wider discussion about the 107th Legislative District's economic development needs. Belfanti's observation that the lack of a full-time higher educational facility in Northumberland County was a major disadvantage for the area struck a chord at Wilkes. Belfanti promoted utilization of the Kulpmont school as an ideal site for higher education because of the building's excellent condition, its central location in the Shamokin-Mount Carmel area and its proximity to Route 61.

Before even seriously considering an educational initiative in Northumberland County, Wilkes officials wanted assurances that the venture would have universal community support and would not spark a public controversy. They didn't want politics rearing its ugly head.

Belfanti wisely gave Little an active role in the process. She attended confidential discussions in Wilkes-Barre and in Kulpmont, all the while assuring university representatives that the Kulpmont community and surrounding area would welcome Wilkes with open arms.

Wilkes officials toured the Kulpmont school, and were impressed with what they saw. They also toured the nearby St. Casimir's Church, vacant since the 1995 church mergers, and the church rectory, and the idea was advanced that the school, church and rectory could be developed as a mini-campus.

The Wilkes Education and Technical Training Center that was envisioned when Wilkes officials came to the area to make their announcement in July 1997 would have housed full-time freshmen and hosted other workforce development programs. That proposal, which would have involved a major community partnership and a $2 million fund-raising effort, never came to fruition.

But it did set the stage for highly successful programs at the former school (now Roosevelt Court), including the Luzerne County Community College nursing program, L.I.F.E. Geisinger and renovation of part of the building into senior citizen apartments. The unlikeliest partnership of all between one staunch Republican and one staunch Democrat - in a town where people take politics seriously - succeeded in forever making the future of the Kulpmont school an issue that transcended politics.

At the Wilkes public announcement in July 1997, Belfanti enthusiastically praised Little for her support and cooperation. That support was steadfast throughout; she never betrayed confidential information, and her continued commitment no doubt went a long way to keeping Wilkes officials interested.

In a letter to the editor less than two years ago, Little, scarcely mentioning her own involvement, justly praised Belfanti, Goretski and county housing authority chairman Ed Christiano for their long-time efforts for utilization of the school. She was delighted, in her last years, to be living at Roosevelt Court because it brought back fond memories everyday of her happy high school years.

Being where she loved was a fitting reward for this Kulpmont statesman.

(Betz is an assistant editor of The News-Item.)