By Kathleen Downey
“Life is good,” declares Olga MacFarlane. MacFarlane grew up on Spencer-Peirce-Little Farm, where her father was farm manager. She and her family lived in the adjoining residence off of the main house. “It was a lovely experience,” MacFarlane says of her comfortable childhood spent in the bucolic environment. She recalls the sense of freedom that she felt while playing and riding her bicycle through the farmland’s vast open space, with a vista of the Atlantic beyond the tree line. Horseback riding and tennis rounded out her youthful, carefree days. MacFarlane is quick to add that she and her two sisters did plenty of chores, too. Besides helping care for the farm animals, MacFarlane picked strawberries and blueberries and learned the art of canning fruit jams from her mother. With a mischievous sparkle in her eyes, MacFarlane shares a rite-of-passage that she learned when she was only twelve-years-old while living on the historical farm. “I learned how to drive a car—and a tractor!”
Except for summer visits home, the Woodbridge School alumnus and graduate of Newburyport High School (class of 1943, MacFarlane is proud to acknowledge) took a 50-year hiatus, repatriating herself into the Port community in 2001. During her 50 years away, MacFarlane and her husband, whom she met at Newburyport High, traveled the world and made their home in California. MacFarlane’s husband had received a fellowship at Stanford University. “We had a long engagement before marrying,” MacFarlane says. She elaborates that after completing their independent college educations (“It was very important to me to earn my college degree,” MacFarlane interjects), World War II became an influential factor in their delayed nuptials. “My husband was one of the Tin Can Sailors,” she says, explaining that the term refers to those sailors aboard naval destroyers who are, by their service to country, members of The National Association of Destroyer Veterans. MacFarlane shares that, on more than one occasion, her husband was nearly “blown up” in the Pacific Theatre. “He was in Tokyo, aboard the Essex naval aircraft carrier, when the peace treaty was signed,” MacFarlane states, relief still detectable in her voice.
Though her husband passed away in Newburyport three years ago, MacFarlane proudly reveals that his legacy of community and peace continues today. “While we were living in Saratoga, California, my husband helped to create a sister city with Mukō, located in Kyoto, Japan.” MacFarlane traveled with her husband to Japan six times. Through her husband’s position as chairperson of the student exchange program with Mukō, the couple welcomed and often hosted Japanese students in their home.
Sharing her love of community with others is second nature to MacFarlane. “I feel that working on behalf of the community that I live in, in ways that I enjoy, is very important.” Since coming home to Newburyport ten years ago, MacFarlane has been a tireless community organizer and an advocate. As the third-term president of Friends of the Newburyport Council on Aging, MacFarlane says that her mission is to help make a city Senior Center a reality. Her 16 years of experience as a Senior Center Director while living in California have steeled her fortitude. Ideally, MacFarlane says she would love to see an intergenerational community facility, firm in her belief that each age has value and every individual has something to offer. “It’s good for individuals of all ages to connect with one another,” MacFarlane states. “We should not isolate our senior citizens.”
MacFarlane holds the slightly madcap role as coordinator for the local chapter of the Red Hat Society. Described as “a global society of women that supports and encourages women in their pursuit of fun, friendship, freedom, fulfillment, and fitness,” members who’ve reached the magical age of 50 are easily identified—as they move, en masse, through a community—by their red hats and purple attire. (According to the society’s regulations, aspiring younger women in this friendly mad hatter’s club should wear pink and lavender.) “Ours is not a showy group,” MacFarlane states. “We don’t wear a lot of ‘bling’ like some groups encourage. And we don’t hold pajama parties!” Instead, MacFarlane says, her group likes to visit museums and attend literary readings. She describes a recent event with Newburyport author Aine Greaney as “thoroughly enjoyable.”
When she’s not wearing her red hat or working to bring a Senior Center to Newburyport, MacFarlane coordinates a Financial Literacy discussion group. With a certificate from the Wharton School of Finance and with financial acumen being both a pursuit and a hobby (ever since she worked for Newburyport’s former Merchant National Bank when she was a high school student), MacFarlane is driven to help educate other women to become financially savvy.
MacFarlane is also an agent of her graduating class for the Newburyport Education Foundation, a fundraising group that seeks to enhance the education, through various programs, for current students.
It’s no surprise that MacFarlane cites “keeping up with community, world events, and politics” as favorite pastimes. “I love to study an issue and make a decision based on what I’ve discovered,” MacFarlane states. A proud Independent voter, she held every office of the local chapter of the League of Women Voters while living in California. Some of MacFarlane’s less cerebral pastimes include yoga and dance. She participates in classes held three times a week at the Newburyport Elks Lodge.
“I am an outgoing person,” MacFarlane says. “I enjoy people, and I enjoy and value good conversation.” MacFarlane is most proud of being a good public citizen. She encourages other citizens to get involved with community issues and volunteer for causes close to their heart.
“Friendship is most important to me and gives me great satisfaction in life, along with family,” MacFarlane says. She is mother to one daughter, who heads the Department of Historical Preservation in Michigan, and she is grandmother to two. “I feel that I’ve had a good life. I have no bitter feelings.”
Asked to share her life philosophy, MacFarlane states, “I truly believe that you get a lot more by giving than by taking.” The self-proclaimed optimist says, “Do something to make a positive change, and enjoy the rewards from the experience of giving.”
Kathleen Downey is the Features Editor for Newburyport Today. She can be reached at Kathleen@Newburyport-Today.com.