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Remembering Dr. Spencer Shaw

By Tracie D. Hall, Michelle McFarland, and Elise Browne

July 07, 2010

On June 16, 2010, Spencer G. Shaw, renowned storyteller, educator and librarian passed away at the age of 93. Born in Hartford in 1917, Dr. Shaw was among the first African American librarians to integrate the professional ranks of the Hartford Public Library. He served as Branch Manager of the Upper Albany Branch of the Hartford Public Library from 1941-1949 becoming the first African American librarian to ever be hired by the library system. It was during his tenure at the Upper Albany Branch that Dr. Shaw would hone the craft of storytelling and earn a reputation for captivating children and adults alike with the folk tales he uncovered from ethnic traditions the world over. Often beginning his stories by lighting a real or imaginary candle and ending his sessions dramatically by blowing the candle out, Dr. Shaw was in demand as tale-teller and teacher of the craft until his death in June.

Though he would leave Hartford Public Library to carve out an illustrious career as a librarian and educator at Brooklyn Public Library, Nassau County Public Library System, and at the University of Washington where he earned the status of Professor Emeritus, Dr. Shaw still considered Hartford, “home” returning to neighboring Bloomfield about ten years ago. Invited by then Upper Albany branch manager, Tracie Hall who had also been his student at the University of Washington, to once again regal an audience with his magical stories, Shaw—then in his late 80s—rekindled his relationship with the Hartford Public Library and the community it served, a relationship that lasted until his death.

In the course of his career Dr. Shaw achieved numerous “firsts” and broke through many professional glass ceilings clearing the way for generations to follow. Among his various achievements are: 1970 Delegate to the White House Conference on Children; Past Chair of the Caldecott Book Award committee; Named an “Eminent American” by the Australian/American Council; Juror for the National Book Award in Literature for Youth; Board of Directors of the Connecticut Storytelling Center of Connecticut College; Honorary Doctor of Literature Degree from the University of Wisconsin; The Award of Lifetime Membership in the American Library Association; and The Distinguished Service Award from the Association of Library Services to Children where he served as President from 1975-1976.

A citizen of the world, teaching as a guest faculty member at over a dozen universities and delivering lectures and holding teaching residencies in such far-flung places as Australia, Brazil, Cyprus, England, Hong Kong, Japan, New Zealand, The Netherlands, South Africa and Zimbabwe, Dr. Spencer G. Shaw is a Hartford native the city should celebrate.

Special Remembrances by current and former HPL staff members and beneficiaries of Dr. Shaw’s legacy of integration and professional excellence:

“A Humble Man” by Michelle McFarland

I met Dr. Shaw in 2002 while working at the Albany Branch Library. He was the special guest story teller for our Red and Black Ball program during which library staff and patrons dressed in 1920s inspired attire for an evening celebrating the Harlem Renaissance. During this event, Dr. Shaw shared his personal recollection of meeting Langston Hughes. This intriguing story inspired me to learn more about Dr. Shaw and his life. I was even more impressed that this distinguished gentleman was born and raised here in Hartford.

Dr. Shaw used his time wisely. He would come to the Albany Branch to sit and read with children. He would patiently answer their questions. Dr. Shaw also spent time in the community talking about his life and experience of coming of age in Hartford. Of all of the things I learned about Dr. Shaw, the fact that he bought a car in his late 80’s clearly let me know he was not slowing down at all.

I invited Dr. Shaw to attend an Aging and Gender course I was taking at UCONN. He shared anecdotes about his travels and passed around memorabilia that he had collected over the years. He also had an opportunity to present to senior citizen groups as well. Both groups were completely mesmerized by his stories.

Dr. Spencer Shaw was a humble man who made a significant contribution to the library profession and to many other communities nationwide. He was not only a great colleague, but a good friend who will never be forgotten.

“We Must Always Give Our Very Best” by Tracie D. Hall

I first met Dr. Shaw while a student receiving my Masters Degree in Library and Information Science at the University of Washington in Seattle where he had been a celebrated faculty member. Though he had long retired, Dr. Shaw would return to the Seattle area each year to deliver workshops and lectures on library services to children. As one of very few people of color and one of a handful of African American students in my program I was excited to meet this man who had helped to integrate the library profession. Though I still cherish the storytelling pointers I learned from him and use many of them to assist in much of the public speaking I do, I think I learned my biggest lesson from Dr. Shaw while in the kitchen during a dinner party he was throwing.

Seattle was known for its delicious salmon and I had brought a fillet of smoked salmon as my contribution to the party. Looking at the elegantly set buffet table where he had arranged an array of delicious food I asked Dr. Shaw how we should serve the salmon. “Let me see if I can find my special forks for serving salmon,” he’d said and began searching through a few cabinet drawers. When I stopped him to point out that any knife and fork would do as it would just be a small group of colleagues and friends coming to dinner, he stopped me and said in his trademark soothing, but unmistakably authoritative voice: “No matter how big or small the group, or whether we know them well or not at all, we must always give our very best.” With that he continued searching for the forks until he found them.

That evening lasted a few hours, but those words have stayed with me forever. As a young librarian and a young woman, Dr. Shaw was reminding me that even when among those that I know very well I must never miss an opportunity to do and give the best I can. As the community librarian at the Albany Branch from 2000-2003 which Dr. Shaw also once managed, those words guided the work of our staff, and even today, myself a part-time library faculty member mentoring aspiring librarians, I find myself still challenged by Dr. Shaw’s edict to give your best product, best service, best self to those you come in contact with. Dr. Shaw believed we owed each other that much, and I do too.

“A Genteel Gentleman” by Elise Browne

I witnessed Dr. Shaw in action last July 2009 in Chicago during his presentation for the Association for Library Service to Children at the American Library Association’s conference. The program entitled “Stories for a Saturday Evening” featured Dr. Shaw and other storytellers who educated and enlightened those in attendance with storytelling techniques, and entertained us as well. Dr. Shaw captivated the large audience of librarians and others assembled in the Hilton’s Grand Ballroom to learn from the masters of storytelling. With his voice he reeled out a self penned story luring in listeners with well enunciated words modulated with precise inflection. The audience was quiet, spellbound, until he blew out the candle signifying the conclusion. I greeted him afterwards so he would know someone from back home was in attendance, he was excited and informed me that he soon would be traveling abroad. Dr. Shaw was awesome and so full of life! I left that session inspired and feeling renewed in my own capability to tell stories.

Dr. Shaw was committed to sharing his knowledge and expertise with others and planned to present during the American Library Association Conference taking place this year June 24-29th, 2010 in Washington DC. Although feeling under the weather just prior to the conference Dr. Shaw was undaunted and intended to make his presentation live, via a Skype internet video connection. He willingly embraced this new technology to be able to impart his knowledge, passion for children’s literature and especially storytelling for future generations. Dr. Shaw lives on in the hearts and minds of family, friends, librarians and others touched by this genteel gentleman.

Reprinted with permission of the NorthEnd Agent's. To view other stories in this newspaper, browse their website at http://northendagents.com/.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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