I first spoke to Vickie in the summer of 2015, when she phoned to say that she’d visited the Coffin Works at the weekend, been on a guided tour and loved the place, so wanted to get involved.
When I first met her a week later, she told me that she’d just retired, so was looking for something to do and we were it. I remember her smile and her enthusiasm tinged with a slight anxiety because this was so out of her comfort zone.
Vickie caveated her desire to volunteer with words to the effect of:
“I don’t want to be a tour guide or work front of house, and I’m not ready to be a room guide…I’d rather not work in the office either, as I want to be in the museum. I just want to be here and see how it goes.”
At the time I remember thinking to myself, I’m not sure what I’m going to do with you, as we only had three main roles and this was an unusual request, or so I thought. But what I do remember is thinking ‘well, what have I got to lose?’ We’re also new and let’s just give her a chance, as she’s giving us one.
As I learned, this was just Vickie’s way, she liked to test the water first, work out the lay of the land and if that felt right, she felt empowered. Vickie gave so much of her energy to people, but she also fed off others, and if that mutual transfer was there she was riding high and the soul of any place.
Within a month, Vickie was tour guiding, and charming visitors with her infectious personality. If she connected with a group, it was her elixir and her smile would beam even brighter.
Connections with groups were important to her. It wasn’t good enough to just ‘do her thing’, she needed to feed off the group’s energy and if she did, it was her feel-good fuel for the rest of the day. If she didn’t, she could doubt herself, but that self-reflection made her who she was and was the reason so many of us found it impossible to not connect with her.
Vickie always went the extra mile in everything she did, and we will miss the sight of her leading tours while carrying her iPad and speaker as she played videos and oral histories of past workers at Newman Brothers. She recognised the power of the personal touch when telling stories and this was what made her an incredible tour guide.
She was also the best eBay hunter I knew and over the last nine years helped us develop our collection by finding Newman Brothers’ products for sale and purchasing them for us as a donation to the museum.
On a personal note, the connection I felt with Vickie doesn’t come along very often. It was this mutual respect, an instant connection and equal exchange of ‘feel-good’ energy. In fact, I don’t think there was ever a time when we met over the last 9 years when we didn’t laugh and that’s not exclusive to me and my relationship with her. She loved life and had so much to give and this is why her death feels all the more tragic.
Vickie could never do enough for us at the Coffin Works, but she never realised just how much she did do. She’d often say ‘it’s nothing’ or ask ‘are you sure this is okay?’ when what she’d produced was beyond the skills of most of us. She had exceptional skills at making any sort of handmade decorations and was our ‘go to’ person for wedding receptions, Christmas decorating, courtyard cleaning and planting, and event planning in general.
That was her happy place and the giant Christmas wreath she’d make every year (using a hula hoop decorated with greenery and lights!) was a staple in our courtyard. It’s missing this year because for the first time in 9 years our Vickie isn’t here to hang it.
I’m surprised that I have 360 photos of Vickie on my phone as she often pulled a ‘not again’ face before any photo we took. The one above, where she’s holding the ‘Merry Christmas’ sign in front of her face sums her up perfectly: she never loved being centre of attention, but still wanted to be part of something and her smiley eyes say all you need to know. She was one of those true team players who never wanted to be dragged to the front, but she inevitably was because that’s where Vickie belonged. She was a leader, an inspiration and had undeniable respect from all she worked with.
Vickie did everything possible to help the Coffin Works succeed and she could always call in a favour because she was that well liked. She never asked for anything in return. Over the years we made trips to Zurich Insurance, her former employer, where she negotiated an office full of free furniture to be donated to us and most recently, we went on a trip to a Birmingham City Council nursery, where she managed to get £200 worth of flowers for £20.
Vickie is the first team member we’ve lost since opening the museum back in 2014 and the shock of her death is yet to register for many of us. I still can’t believe she won’t be here for our 10-year birthday bash in 2024, but like a good colleague recently said ‘I am genuinely sure she’ll be there on the 10th birthday giggling from wherever she is now!’
It feels fair to say that Vickie’s death has left a scar on the team, but more appropriate perhaps is that she’s left an indelible impression on the Coffin Works. And that’s because we will never forget that smile and we can still hear her laugh ringing throughout the museum. Her energy has become part of Newman Brothers’ DNA and her legacy will live on because she’s left too much of herself behind for it not to. We know we are lucky to have had nine wonderful years of this special person’s life and although we expected many more, those nine were first class and we couldn’t rate you higher Vickie. You often asked ‘is that okay?’ Well, from all of us, my beautiful friend, that was more than okay, it was unforgettable. We love you Vickie and we will never forget you.
Our thoughts are with Vickie’s husband, Keith.
Sarah Hayes, Museum & Trust Director