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Rochester High's Dave Shaw Retires: As One Curtain Closes, Another Opens

In some schools around the state - fewer art classes are being taught. Meanwhile, art advocates say they help students creatively problem solve and art is crucial for a well-rounded curriculum. I recently visited my former high school in Rochester, and a teacher who is hanging up his smock after three decades leading the program there. Listen to the story:

If you’re lucky, you go through high school with at least one educator who stands above the rest - one who serves as guidance counselor / role model. For me that was Dave Shaw. Not simply an art teacher, he’s been highly involved in helping with choir and directing the school plays. Without him, my love of the arts would not run as deep. But I don’t have to tell you how great he is - these people also know, take a listen:

choir director Josh Spear, and students Piper Garman, Jake Crawford and Ross Jones talk about Shaw's influence

Shaw is single - with no children. But as mentioned, he’s served as a parental figure and mentor to many of the thousands he’s taught at this school over the past 30 years. When I arrive at the school, I find him in a brief moment of calm. He’s typing up notes in his classroom for the final performance of a school play he’ll direct. A check-list is needed to make sure the elaborate set he designed is properly broken down. (Meanwhile, unlike his plans for the set - Shaw’s mantra for the day is “I am a rock.” He wants to get through it without crying. I can tell you that goal was not achieved. Sorry, Shaw.)

In his classroom, dozens of pieces of artwork surround us on the walls. They range from water-color, to photography thru sculpture. Says Shaw, “Every day when I look at them - I’m surrounded by all these familiar faces from former kids. So when I’m sitting here in my room I can kind of commune with former kids through their art - which is, a joy.”

We’re in the relatively new fine arts building in Rochester- containing classrooms and an auditorium. Back in my day, Shaw’s room was always changing location due to construction projects. It proved his imagination and adaptability as an educator: “Well, I started in a basement, and then I went to a garage, and then I went to an abandoned school, to a trailer - to finally having an art room that was designed as an art room,” says Shaw. I reminisce with him about a particularly odd year – when art class took place in a trailer, far away from the main building. “We were really limited in supplies and we had no water source - but it was an adventure, and it was fun,” remembers Shaw.

That spirit is something that attracts students to Shaw, especially ones who may feel like outcasts, so says Dennis Jones. He’s Rochester High’s band director and he’s worked with Shaw for over twenty years. “I think what makes him stand out the most is just the way he can connect with the kids ... He’s got a great rapport with the kids that I think a lot of teachers would love to have,” says Jones. Another thing that stands out? His immense talent for visual art and theater alike. “It’s going to take four or five people to replace him ... he’ll still continue to be a beacon in our community in the arts,” says Jones.

Former students have come from all over the country to see his last show here, including Maggie Pinke who lives in Wisconsin now and credits her career as a photographer to him. Shaw took her under his wing after noticing her skill for sewing - she started helping him with costumes and eventually he helped hone her skills for taking photos. She says for her, Shaw is: “Unfailingly kind, supportive, and sees through you - to the things you don’t even fully know about yourself yet - and helps you pull them out.”

"My true passion is art, but I can't separate it from theater, because theater is the culmination of all the arts ... how can you not love that? And bringing all those people together, it's just like magic." -Dave Shaw

  As a former student myself, Shaw is one of the best visual artists I have ever seen. His class demonstrations, no matter the medium, were done with such adeptness he made it seem effortless. He has taught print-making, oil painting, charcoal drawing, textiles – the list goes on. “My true passion is art, but I can’t separate it from theater, because theater is the culmination of all the arts ... how can you not love that? And bringing all those people together, it’s just like – magic,” says Shaw.

Dave Shaw first dreamed of being an art teacher when he was in high school. His decades-long career and the hundreds of students he has touched prove it was the perfect fit. As for theater, the show will go on. Shaw is involved with a local group called ‘Over the Moon Productions.’ He’s currently directing Godspell which you can see at the Hoogland come fall. So as one curtain closes, another opens – and how lucky for our area’s art community.

Rachel Otwell of the Illinois Times is a former NPR Illinois reporter.
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