Reflections of a former president

by Kate Stolzfus

It began with her mother’s story.

Two children were playing on their farm and discovered a magic elevator in a nearby tree. They took the elevator up into the clouds, discovered a factory where sunshine was made, and slid down the back of a rainbow.

For a young Shirley Showalter, being a character in a made-up world was only the beginning of her journey with words.

Showalter, now 63, believes in stories. Even before she went to school, her mother, Barbara Ann Hershey Becker, was a storyteller and would read to Showalter and her younger brother. “She made life seem as though it could be lived like a story and be just as exciting,” Showalter said. “She would tell stories very dramatically, holding her breath, giving clues. Like watching TV before there was TV.”

Showalter began as an English professor at Goshen College in the 1970s and went on to become president of the school for eight years. Starting in 2004, she served as an executive for the Fetzer Foundation in Michigan. Continuously thrust into positions of leadership, Showalter has shown her strengths as a leader and her joy of working with others.

Though Showalter’s work kept her busy, reading has remained a constant in her life. “I always took time to read, to feed my soul,” Showalter said. “I took time for literary nourishment as a way of keeping connected spiritually.”
From an early age, Showalter seized the gift of stories passed down from her mother and wanted to share it with others.

“I got the aspiration to go to college in elementary school,” noted Showalter, who looked up to her teachers as super-human beings.
Growing up the daughter of a Pennsylvania farmer, college was not the first thing on her parents’ mind.

“My father thought the ideal path for a girl was to be a secretary and marry a nice farmer,” Showalter said. “But I had no interest.”

The first person on either side of her family to go to college, she worked herself through school, emerging with very little debt and an English degree. While this was not in her parents’ plans, Showalter says, “They wanted me to follow what seemed to be my calling,” Showalter said.

This calling has led Showalter to do incredible work. While serving as president of Goshen College, she received the prestigious Knight Award for outstanding leadership. Showalter is known for the emphasis she puts on leadership as crucial to a rewarding life.

“When you have been called to serve as a leader, you are feeling your love flow out to the group that called you, and there is no better feeling,” Showalter said. “There is a righteousness that you feel in your mind and spirit when you have responded positively to such a call.”

Showalter’s views on leading are focused on involvement with the community.

“It is a reciprocal relationship,” Showalter said. “I have been blessed to share and grow with a community, both at Goshen and Fetzer.”

Ann Hostetler, an English professor at Goshen, has fond memories of working with Shirley. “She was the first woman president [for the college] and that was a very brave thing to do,” Hostetler said. “She had a sense of humor and enjoyed telling stories.”

Now in transition between jobs, Showalter is taking an opportunity to tell some stories of her own. She began a blog in 2008, after responding to a local newspaper’s literary contest in Kalamazoo, Mich., her former town of residence.

“I had been interested in writing all my life,” Showalter said, “and thought, I could do that.” Her articles about childhood won first prize and, with that encouragement, she started her blog, 100 Memoirs.

A few times a month, Showalter sits down with a cup of tea to spread her love of story through memoir with her internet audience. Her blog is rich with book critiques, author Q&As and personal reflection of the reading journey.

“I teach what I need to learn myself–a practice I started long ago at Goshen College,” said Showalter. “It would be great if the blog also inspired more people to write their own life stories. I will continue this blog as long as it provides inspiration and challenge to readers and as long as it is fun to write.”

Showalter has not reviewed 100 memoirs yet but she has certainly read that many. The reason is, as her site’s tagline states, because 99 aren’t enough. She cites memoirists Mary Karr and Haven Kimmel among her favorite authors of the craft.

A frequent reader for Showalter’s blog is her husband, Stuart Showalter. They met in college on the school newspaper, where Stuart was attracted to her by her energy, imagination, and sense of humor. Stuart has had the opportunity to see his wife grow in each of her endeavors.

“Through the years, Shirley’s own personal values–love for God and others, care for the earth, and enjoying life to the fullest in the company of family and friends– have remained remarkably constant,” Stuart said. “The changes have come primarily in the work contexts to which she has given herself teaching, college administration, and foundation administration.”

The couple moved to Harrisongburg, Va. this past fall, where Showalter continues to keep up her blog and is looking to possibly pen her own memoir.
Whatever the future holds, Showalter is certain her memoir will help shape her view of life.

“As I review from early childhood, it feels as though memoir and life have been woven together,” said Showalter. “We are all living our lives like a story. Each one of us has a unique stamp from the creator and are searching for what life is about.”

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