Some things in life can have small beginnings.
For retired teacher and 80-year-old Langley resident Jean Shaw, it all started by saying ‘yes.’
“Will you teach English?” asked Langley Junior/Senior High School Principal Allan Good in 1974.
Sure, she said.
“Can you coach the girls’ basketball team?”
Of course, she replied.
“Can you put on a play?”
Sure, no problem, she said. Shaw had no prior experience with teaching drama.
“I was sort of that way in that year,” Shaw said. “I was jumping into whatever.”
Though Shaw did not know it at the time, she was about to embark on a three-decade-long journey on South Whidbey as a teacher of the arts and drama who would impact generations of youths on South Whidbey. Along the way she would also become Langley’s first-ever woman firefighter, help start the South Whidbey Schools Foundation, coordinate community-wide talent shows and…well, the list goes on and on. She most recently helped South Whidbey High School
Jim Freeman, who has worked with Shaw for 30 years at talent shows and with the schools foundation, said the key ingredient to her work is joy. Freeman and Shaw make regular trips to classrooms around the South Whidbey School District when presenting checks to teachers who utilize the foundation’s fundraising to help fund projects that the district would otherwise not be able to afford. Shaw is the foundation’s community liaison.
“It’s part of her nature as a human being,” Freeman said. “That joy translates to a cast, to a team, to a committee, to all of us. When you see someone acting like Tinker Bell, it’s pretty hard not to be Peter Pan.”
Shaw participated in many plays and performances growing up in New Hope, Pa., but had no prior experience teaching drama when she accepted the offer to put on a play.
Her living situation was far from suitable for her first few months on Whidbey Island; she and her three sons would live out of a 1955 Airstream trailer while they built their house on Coles Road. Shaw later transitioned to Langley Middle School, where she taught English, drama and journalism.
Shaw left South Whidbey in the mid-1980s for New Hope after her father passed to help out at Solesbury School, a private school her father had started. Though on the other side of the country, Shaw maintained her ties with the arts in the South Whidbey School District, helping to direct and produce annual talent shows, musicals and other arts showcases. She was also the director of the education department at The Giraffe Project, a non-profit organization based in Langley that is dedicating to shedding light on those who stick their necks out for a common good.
“I would come back and forth from being (in New Hope),” Shaw said.
During her absence, Shaw said teacher Michael McInerney “really got drama going.” When Shaw eventually returned in the mid-1990s, she resumed her role as an active member in the drama and arts community.
Shaw retired in 2007. At around the same time, the drama program lost its wind.
“It stopped at one point,” Shaw said. “McInerney left.”
That was until 2015, when a pair of intrepid South Whidbey High School students, Chloe Hood and Kari Hustad, requested Shaw’s help to rejuvenate the drama program. Shaw and McInerney joined forces once again and helped the drama program perform, “Almost Maine,” its first production in seven years.
They later performed “Footloose” in November 2016.
“They were so great about that,” Shaw said.
Shaw is considered to be a role model by her friend and former neighbor Shirlee Read of Langley, from how to stay connected with the community to being a good friend. Read said that Shaw has the ability to connect with young people, even going as far as calling her a “genius with kids.” Read was also impressed by her contributions with the arts and theater, and her ever-lasting energy and enthusiasm.
“I’m not sure anybody could have pulled together some of the things they pulled together at the schools,” Read said.
One of Shaw’s sons, Chris Gibson, thought Shaw’s work helped inspire things like the Whidbey Children’s Theater. He also said he wasn’t surprised when his mother became Langley’s first woman firefighter; it’s just part of her nature, he said.
“She’s been one of the icons for the arts on South Whidbey, as well as a lot of other people,” Gibson said.