Most students can’t wait to graduate. Gail Kirkham couldn’t wait to get back to school.
For decades, Kirkham was a devoted education advocate, serving more than 13 years as a trustee on the Brentwood district school board. Kirkham died surrounded by family at North Shore University Hospital on Jan. 1 after suffering complications from heart disease. She was 63.
To friends and family, the longtime Brentwood resident was a role model and devoted mother who juggled everything for her children and grandchildren. She often whipped up her signature red velvet cake and lasagna, and also lobbied for prekindergarten education access.
“She will be so missed. This is like a big hole for all of us,” her daughter Deidra Olds, 42, of Islip Terrace, said.
Kirkham was born in Clermont, Florida, on Dec. 10, 1953. As a child, she moved with her parents to Central Islip, where she started attending the public schools, her son Tyrel Kirkham, 33, of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, said.
It was through school that Kirkham met her husband, Albert Kirkham, whose family lived around the corner. They later married in 1973 and settled in Brentwood, Olds said.
Albert supported her as she attended Farmingdale State College to get a nursing degree, but a career in medicine was put on hold when Gail Kirkham was diagnosed with several heart conditions that prevented her from standing for long periods of time.
Kirkham instead put her energy into her job at United Way of Long Island and her children’s education as they moved through the Brentwood school district. She was heavily involved with the Brentwood Public Library, the Brentwood Police Athletics League and the Islip Town branch of the NAACP.
“Her impeccable resume of leadership” and “her love for children and this community is why she will be greatly missed,” said Elizabeth Mercado, Brentwood school board president.
Tyrel Kirkham said at home his mother was always pushing him and his siblings, Olds and Jasyn Kirkham, 41, of Rotterdam, to improve themselves. She challenged them to read as many books as they could over the summer, signed them up for extracurricular activities and organized family Scrabble nights to teach new words.
“With me, she took it the next level. I couldn’t breathe without someone knowing my mom,” said Tyrel Kirkham, laughing. He is now vice president of global merchandising for the Brooklyn Nets and Barclays Center. “I did well because I knew there was no opportunity to mess up.”
She took on the role of both parents in 2000, even as she struggled with her heart condition, when Albert died shortly after being admitted to the hospital with pancreatitis.
“She could have easily just mailed it in, you know, you’re sick, you’ve lost your husband,” said Tyrel Kirkham, who was just starting college at the time. “But that’s not in her DNA.”
After her husband’s death, Kirkham dove into an advocacy movement for pre-K education in the Brentwood district, Olds said. She picked her 10- and 12-year-old granddaughters up from school and made sure their homework was done when Olds had to work late. She even attended PTA meetings in Islip Terrace for her grandkids.
“It was a labor of love,” Olds said.
Funeral services were held for Kirkham on Jan. 7. She is buried next to her husband at Oakwood Cemetery in Bay Shore. Family members are establishing a memorial fund, Tyrel Kirkham said.
She is survived by her three children and two grandchildren.