Virginia Finnie, Princeton history tour guide, dies at 88

Virginia “Ginnie” Louise Boylan Finnie, a lover of art and history who offered tours of Princeton, died in her sleep May 1. She was 88.

Born in Cleveland, Ohio on Nov. 4th, 1934 to Mabel Ethel Brocker and Leo Joseph Boylan. Ginnie lived a full and vibrant life overflowing with family, friends, career, travel, and pursuing avid interests. Married when still a teenager to her 7th grade – and lifelong– sweetheart, Bruce Finnie, she moved to the Boston area with Bruce at 17 to attend Boston University in nursing. After being pushed out of that program because she married, she later returned to Boston University while her three children were still young, to complete her degree in history, a field that would remain an abiding passion through her life. She supported her family with unwavering vigilance and commitment, generously sustaining her children Matthew and his wife Carol; Ellen and her partner Jaime Basswerner; and Janet and her husband Robert Whiteside, as well as her beloved grandchildren Daniel and Hannah Finnie, Nat Duranceau, and Phoebe and Ellen Whiteside.

While Ginnie was unflagging and devoted in the care of her family, her interests and delight in the broader world took her into many other spheres as well. After moving from the Boston area to Princeton in 1969, through the 1970s, 80s, and into the 90s, she was a gifted, admired, and influential high school social studies teacher – and, for a number of years, also department head – at Ewing High School. With a true passion for history and government, and deep dedication to her students, she went the extra mile to spark their interest in history and civic engagement. She took students to Model United Nations events in Washington DC and participated in a teacher exchange in Russia. This exchange was not only professional, as it turned out. Ginnie was matched in the exchange with a Russian teacher who had responsibility for the orphanages in the Russian city of Nizhny-Tagil, and based on the strong relationship she developed with Ginnie, this teacher identified an infant for adoption by Ginnie’s daughter Ellen, who thus became Ginnie’s granddaughter, Nat. Such was Ginnie’s remarkable aptitude for adventure, connection, and care.

Ginnie had a lifelong devotion to watching birds, traveling, and to learning — indeed, the term “life-long learner” could have been created for her. She managed to complete a Master’s in history at Rutgers while she was a mother working full time, and throughout her life, she loved to take courses: after retiring, she relished being able to audit classes at Princeton University. Ginnie drank in historical and geographical information from her voracious reading and wide travel and delighted in sharing it. Genuinely fascinated by the world, she kept detailed journals and photo albums of these trips, including rich cultural observations of every place she visited, from Alaska to Australia. Among her many wide-ranging activities and engagements, she participated in an archeological dig and birded on 4 continents.

In addition to her enduring marriage with Bruce (they had been married 70 years when he died in 2022), Ginnie maintained dear friendships from all stages of her life, including a close multi-decade friendship with a pen pal in Australia. She was a dedicated volunteer, for many years supporting the Historical Society of Princeton by offering tours of Princeton and participating actively in the Association for Gravestone Studies. A lifelong patron of the arts, Ginnie was very musical. Following in her admired father’s footsteps (Leo Boylan was a talented tenor, finding his way to a key role in an accomplished singing group, despite the challenges of his immigration from Ireland as a teen) Ginnie sang in an octet as well as played saxophone at Shaw High in Cleveland, and was an avid supporter of classical music and local theater, particularly McCarter Theater in Princeton. A devoted reader herself, she volunteered with Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic for many years to make books available to those who could not read the printed word.

Ginnie made and met a multitude of commitments throughout her life, whether for family, friends, students, or the organizations she cared about, including many civic, cultural, and environmental causes. Despite the significant constraints of being a working mother, she managed to express her talents across a wide range of dimensions. She arranged large Boylan/Finnie family gatherings at the Outer Banks that fostered deep family connections, reveled in knitting gorgeous sweaters and afghans for everyone in her family, and sustained family and friends with her mouth-watering homemade bread and jam. She was passionately engaged in word and fact games (especially Jeopardy and the Dictionary Game!), and developed a keen eye as an adept collector of antique clocks, whose history fascinated her.

From her earliest years, Ginnie wanted to see the world and participate in it fully. Her vision was expansive, and she pursued all her dreams, despite the challenge of simultaneously managing a career and motherhood, particularly in the context of her era. She lived her life to the fullest and never expressed any regret or any unfulfilled dream. She was a shining example to all her children and grandchildren, and touched untold numbers of lives through her teaching and travel. To know Ginnie was to admire her– and to benefit from her unwavering commitment to understanding, knowledge, and open-minded exploration of life. We celebrate her fortitude, her kindness, her remarkable capacity and talents, her deep and broad engagement, and the gifts she has left to her family and to so many others through her dedicated care and concern, and through her outstanding example of a life well-lived.

Predeceased by her husband Bruce Finnie, and her brother Leo “Bud” Boylan, Ginnie leaves a brother, David Boylan, and her children and grandchildren. Services will be private.

Those who would like to honor Ginnie’s life and legacy may donate to the Historical Society of Princeton.