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by Joe Sheppard
With a little help from his friends...
Although Joe officially retired in June 2013, he remains active at LA, continuing as a contributing writer and editor for the Academy Journal. We trust you'll enjoy Shep's Place and check back often to read Joe's habitually witty, often poignant, and always insightful vignettes about life at Lawrence Academy.
Shep's Place 44: The First Shep
When I arrived at Lawrence in the fall of 1965, I quickly learned that I wasn’t the only Sheppard on campus. More precisely, I wasn’t the only person whose name was pronounced like that of a person who tends sheep, though I could claim the spelling of my last name as unique. The other, older, tender of the flocks, was Bob Shepherd, called Shep by everyone (long before the kids attached that nickname to me), and his was a formidable presence around campus.
Principal Fred C. Gray hired Robert S. Shepherd in 1948 to teach English and French and to coach football, baseball, and other sports. Powerful both in personality and in physique — though he carried a good deal of extra weight when I knew him — Shep was an exacting teacher and coach whom the boys both respected and feared. For several generations of students, he was the gatekeeper at both ends of their Lawrence Academy careers. As the school’s first director of admissions, he alone decided who would have an LA education and who would not; at the other end, his Senior English class was a challenging rite of passage before graduation.
Taking over the job of admissions from the headmaster in 1961 was just one of Shep’s “firsts” at LA. In his first year, 1948 – ’49, he coached football, skiing, and baseball. The following year, however, he brought wrestling to the campus. Ten boys signed up; in March when Shep felt they were ready, he arranged a meet with Cushing. Cushing backed out, so LA’s first wrestlers went unopposed. The 1950 Lawrencian wrote,
The Friday before the match, conflicts in the schedule caused Cushing to cancel the contest…The wrestling season came to an end with the slate reading, “No losses, no ties, no wins, and one match almost fought.” It was a start which we hope will continue until the Lawrence Academy wrestling team has made a name for itself among the prep school teams.
After several seasons as an “activity,” the team earned varsity status in 1957.
Shep left another mark on LA in the form of the public speaking program, which he started in 1960. The whole school assembled in the study hall every Saturday morning to listen to speeches, and every student had to give at least one before graduation. The kids could talk about anything they wanted, as long as it was clean. Memorable speeches included one entitled “God is Dead,” a not-too-thickly-veiled protest against the daily morning “chapel,” now called assembly. It consisted of reading a psalm, singing a hymn and reciting the Lord’s Prayer, all in a somewhat desultory manner. Another time, a senior argued that the students should be allowed to call teachers by their first names. He started off, “Bob, oh Bob, where are you?” — referring, of course, to Shep, but ignorant of the fact that no one, ever, anywhere, called him Bob. In those days, we were all Sir.
Shep’s personality was strong, and you either liked him or you didn’t. He was known to reduce kids to tears in faculty meetings and even in admissions interviews; on the other hand, I, like other young teachers, found him kind and sensitive when I sought his advice on dealing with a few students whom I couldn’t seem to reach. His sense of humor was boisterous, he loved a good party, and he loved to play bridge. Dick Jeffers told me recently that Shep would call him and Bev at 11:30 at night to ask if they wanted to play some bridge. They’d play until 3:30 in the morning, then get up and go to school the next day.
My refusal ever to learn the game can be traced directly to my first Mountain Day. While others climbed, Shep, Jack Burckes and a couple of other teachers stayed at the bottom and played bridge. Voices were raised. Insults were hurled. The air was blue. Never had I seen four mature adults get so angry while having “fun.” Never much of a card player anyway, I decided at that point to stick with Go Fish and I Doubt You.
Shep’s LA career ended in 1972, two years into Ben Williams’ tenure. Much was changing, and Shep, like a few others, had trouble coping with the new ways. He went on to other jobs including one headmastership, a post that had eluded him at LA when the Trustees chose Arthur Ferguson to succeed Fred Gray. But Shep left his mark at Lawrence, and those of us who knew him were grateful that we did.
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Many thanks to Paul Husted ’64, co-keeper of the Jeffers Heritage Center, for his invaluable help with research for this column.
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