Editor’s Note: Mr. Shaler, who had been a teacher and coach at Williston for 40 years, passed away on Thursday, April 4, 2019. You can read his obituary here. The story below originally ran in the Spring 2012 Bulletin.
In the 1970s, Al Shaler P’80, ’81, ’84 engineered one of his favorite hoaxes. Actor Paul Newman had just visited the Admission Office with his daughter, leaving the campus star-struck. In the ears of a few key people, Mr. Shaler started hinting that he knew who the next high-profile student interested in the Williston Northampton School would be: Amy Carter, daughter of then-U.S. President Jimmy Carter. The visit was pure invention, but the rumor quickly spread through the school community. “Oh geez, that was funny,” he says, sitting back in his chair happily. “You just tell a couple of people and it’s all over campus in no time at all!” Talking to Mr. Shaler is a bit like flipping through the pages of a good book. There are the obvious chapters—his 40-year career as combined English teacher, cross-country and track coach, and campus organist at Williston Northampton—and then there are his vast number of hobbies and interests. Running through it all, as a common theme, is his self-deprecating humor.
Alumni, faculty, and staff describe the 75-year-old as a legend among school faculty. Mr. Shaler, though, dismisses such praise with one-liners that are part dry wit and part humility.
“I did a lot of things, but none of them well,” he says when asked about his long list of incredible achievements: creating courses on African-American literature and J.D. Salinger or founding the cross-country team.
Like many faculty members who have transformed the campus during their tenures, Mr. Shaler was young—just 25—when he arrived. He remembers being “a little overwhelmed” at the concept of a boarding school, an educational style he’d never experienced. But he survived, if not without some initial embarrassment: “I looked 14. The first year I went and tried to buy a book from a bookseller on campus, the salesman thought I was a student!”
Mr. Shaler, who graduated with a double major in music and English from Hamilton College, along with more athletic letters than anyone else in his class, brought all of his passions to Easthampton.
“The headmaster liked me, and I kept hounding him to start a cross-country team. I think he thought I was going to leave if I didn’t get my way,” Mr. Shaler remembers. Eventually, the headmaster, Phillips Stevens, relented. The cross-country team that Mr. Shaler started continues to this day. Each October, students run in the Shaler Invitational meet in his honor.
In academics, Mr. Shaler focused his energy on creating new, memorable experiences in the classroom. His African-American literature course, started in the early ’80s, came about when he decided the school should offer it. “I didn’t know anything at all at the time about black literature, so I started to read like crazy,” Mr. Shaler explains.
He used the same enthusiasm to create another elective on the uncollected works of J.D. Salinger. Mr. Shaler built the curriculum by uncovering Mr. Salinger’s lesser-known magazine articles and publications. Both courses were favorites; Mr. Shaler continued to offer them until his retirement in 1999.
“My class was a little bit off the wall at times,” he admits with a chuckle. “If somebody said something a little wacko or I caught them not knowing something, on a signal the rest of the class would burst out ‘harrumph, harrumph, harrumph, harrumph’ and you could hear it all over the building!”
In addition to sports and academics, Mr. Shaler found other ways to participate in school life. He recalled acting alongside students in a number of outstanding musicals and plays produced and directed by former faculty member Dick Gregory. He particularly enjoyed the role of Polonius in Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
The extensive accomplishments in his public life are that much more impressive when set against the backdrop of his personal tragedy. In 1973, when Mr. Shaler’s wife was only 37, she succumbed to terminal cancer, leaving him to raise his nine-, eight-, and five-year-old children. In the wake of the loss, the Williston Northampton community rallied around Mr. Shaler and his family. “Well, you know, a boarding school is sort of like an overgrown family. My colleagues and even a lot of the students were very helpful and supportive,” he says. Mr. Shaler, who never remarried, lived on campus until 1997 when he bought a home in town. All three of his children graduated from Williston Northampton.
Since his retirement, Mr. Shaler doesn’t seem to miss any opportunity for learning and growth. The natural world that inspired his love of cross-country now draws him to a summer home in the Adirondacks each year, where he pursues another specialty: hybridizing lilies. In his lifetime of flower breeding, Mr. Shaler has introduced four or five varieties that, he says modestly, are “not bad.”
When he’s not practicing botany or spending time with his beagle, Mr. Shaler hits the road. He recently returned from a safari in Tanzania and next plans to visit Mexico. He’s been to Guatemala, Panama, and Norway and says his favorite cities include Budapest, Marrakesh, and Dubrovnik.
Mr. Shaler’s larger-than-life personality clearly left an impact on students, one of whom wrote recently to say that he was naming his son for the beloved teacher. Mr. Shaler recalls that Board of Trustee’s treasurer David Connolly ’83, another former student, told him, “I wouldn’t be what I am today if it weren’t for you.” Mr. Shaler, of course, downplays such high praise from his students, and simply says that it’s “very nice. You realize that you did make a difference.”