It’s hard for me to call Dave Shaw anything other than Mr. Shaw. Even as our orbits continued to collide during my adulthood, he was always my teacher. His classroom moved around the Rochester High School campus during seemingly endless renovations. Regardless of his location – a trailer, a garage – Mr. Shaw’s classroom was where everyone wanted to be. And while he was a safe harbor for all the weirdo kids, he knew art was for everyone. His classroom brought together the jocks, freaks and geeks alike, as did the yearly theater productions he directed and designed.
He gave me the role of Anybodys in West Side Story, the gender-defying, tomboy character who tries to run with the guys in the Jets gang – a bit of typecasting. And I’ve never felt more seen on a stage, my hair in a short cut as I tried to exude equal parts grit and yearning to belong. Some rehearsals took the form of boot camp as he built camaraderie between members of the rival gangs.
The sense of belonging in the theater world is what draws in so many. At the center of this universe in Rochester was Mr. Shaw. He made us feel loved, and he taught us how to love each other, regardless of whatever silly high-school clique we thought we belonged to or were being excluded from.
Mr. Shaw knew what it was like to be a little different. Growing up in Moline with his two brothers and sister, he was introverted. “He loved art. He was an artist ever since he could pick up a crayon and pencil. We would play school and he would try to teach us,” says sister Deb.
On top of being a born artist and teacher, he was a lifelong friend to his sister. A really great one. “He was always there. If I ever needed anything, he was right there,” she said. Even as a kid, he showed kindness, empathy and a desire to help.
In college at Illinois State University, he had a hippie streak, drawn to the counterculture – often barefoot. He taught K-12 art for six years at the Chandlerville School District before teaching drama and art in Rochester for more than three decades, retiring in 2016.
When he wasn’t teaching, he had a hand in numerous community-theater productions. He created epic sets, like the one for a Muni production of The Secret Garden, where he painted the eyes and facial features of cast members into the scenery.
Leigh Steiner worked on countless productions with Mr. Shaw over three decades. “I think of him as my artistic soulmate.” Not only were they creators, they were patrons. If a set in a production they were taking in lacked aesthetic appeal, Leigh says she would look over to see him with his eyes closed. “It hurt him if something wasn’t beautiful.”
With each actor, each facet of a performance, his aim was to bring out potential. “His ego was not in the way at all,” says Leigh. He embodied an essence of art and theater that translates broadly: “We’re all just people. And we don’t survive without each other.”
Mr. Shaw was a prolific and talented visual artist, and yet humble – much more reserved around adults than his high-school students. In his “retirement” he could often be found at the Springfield Art Association (SAA), where he was a board member, juried artist and busy volunteer. One of his favorite programs, Opening Minds through Art, gave those struggling with dementia a chance to express themselves creatively.
Students of Mr. Shaw will long carry his legacy. And more yet will carry his memory forward through a fund in his honor that will help young adults pursue a variety of visual and theater arts. The seed money came through an auction of his creations and collected pieces that were donated after his death. “He was wildly talented, and personable, and wonderful to be around,” says SAA’s executive director, Betsy Dollar. Dollar hopes the first award in Shaw’s honor will come out by the end of the school year.
A final note: I feel like I am cheating by not including a former student voice in this piece other than my own. But the truth is, I wouldn’t know where to start. Each of us has our own story to tell about his impact. We’re a constellation, all over the world, each shining brighter for having had him in our lives.
Rachel Otwell is a former
Illinois Times staff writer and associate editor. She currently works for Illinois Comptroller Susana A. Mendoza. She will always believe art is a crucial part of existence, and largely has Mr. Shaw to thank for that.