Toy Fund donation, dancing among enduring bonds for Purple Stars

Last modified: Monday, December 16, 2013
NORTHAMPTON — “What we radiate is enthusiasm,” is the way Peggy Meehan described the Purple Stars in a story that ran in Hampshire Life magazine back in 1997. Meehan, of Northampton, was part of the line dancing group that in its day strutted its stuff before local audiences. The Stars entertained at church functions, schools, the Big E in Springfield and just about every nursing home in western Massachusetts.

The women, most of whom were well into their 60s or 70s when they became Purple Stars, enjoyed performing and absolutely loved dancing, both on and offstage.

“I’m getting dinner ready in the kitchen and I’m dancing,” Meehan said in 1997. “I’m getting dressed and I’m dancing. I hear music and I’m dancing. This is the way it is.”

And this is the way it is now.

Meehan, of Northampton, is 91. Her balance isn’t so great anymore, she said, “but I still dance to the radio and TV. Dancing is the best exercise there is.” The Purple Stars haven’t performed in years, their ranks thinned by age, fatigue, illness and death. But Meehan and about six other former Purple Stars still keep in touch and get together for lunch for every month or so.

And they still make an annual donation to the Sidney F. Smith Toy Fund, a practice they started after concluding that they didn’t need to exchange presents among themselves anymore.

Named after a former business manager at the Gazette, the fund gives certificates redeemable at participating retailers to eligible families around the holidays. The Gazette works with Berkshire Children and Families to administer the fund, freeing up all donations to pay for certificates used by families in need.

This year’s check from the Purple Stars came with a note from Marion Bak of Amherst: “In memory of our deceased members — Gerry Suriner, Alice Maiewski, Mari Endreweit and Fran Meunier. Also a Merry Christmas to our piano player, Lotus O’Connor, who turned 100 in November.”

The group, which got going around 1990, usually numbered about a dozen women. Though a few came and went over the years, most stayed for the long haul, forging strong bonds of friendship along the way.

Despite their different backgrounds, the Stars’ personalities meshed. Suriner was a steady, quiet presence. Meunier was outgoing, always “joyful,” in Bak’s word. Maiewski, who had always insisted that she “didn’t look like a dancer,” once said she had discovered that the joy of dancing “saves your life.”

Lotus O’Connor of Northampton was the group’s irrepressible, often funny master of ceremonies. When she recently reached the century mark, “we had a little gathering for her,” Bak said, “and we all gave her cards.”

Endreweit, a former New Yorker who relocated to the area in the early 1990s, was the group’s last director and its guiding force. She was the one who would type out instructions for new routines, search out new music tapes and urge the group to do its best.

“She was our captain,” Bak recalled.

Endreweit died in 2012. “After Mari died, we didn’t dance anymore,” Meehan said. “When you lose somebody like that, it’s hard to go on. She had the know-how to pull people together.”

Besides Bak and Meehan, this year’s donation to the Toy Fund is from former Stars Avis Mushovic of Amherst, Kay Cocco of Northampton, and Evie DuBois, Hilde Koepke and Diane Liebert, all of Florence.

“The camaraderie we had” was a powerful connecting thread, Meehan said, and it’s still not broken. When Millie Szafir, a former member of the Purple Stars who now lives in Virginia, arrives for a visit later this month, the Purple Stars plan to get together once again.

The Sidney F. Smith Toy Fund began in 1933 to help families during the Depression, and today distributes vouchers to families for each child from age 1 to 14. Eligible families must live in any Hampshire County community except Ware, or in the southern Franklin County towns of Deerfield, Sunderland, Whately, Shutebury or Leverett.

Donations to the Toy Fund may be dropped off at or mailed to the Daily Hampshire Gazette, 115 Conz St., Northampton, MA 01060, the Gazette bureau at 100 University Drive, Amherst, MA 01002, or made online at gazettenet.com. Checks should be made payable to the Sidney F. Smith Toy Fund.