Popular author, artist resigning KPC position at end of term

Charting a new course

Posted: Thursday, March 28, 2002

Boyd Shaffer has never applied for a job in his life, yet he has never been unemployed and has never had a job he didn't love, he said.

In September, Shaffer will retire from his 36-year tenure as an art professor at Kenai Peninsula College, and he and his wife, Susan, will leave Kenai in search of a new adventure.

They are sure to find one, especially since they are moving to the Central American jungles of Belize.

"When it's time to move on, it's time to move on," Susan Shaffer said. "And it is time for us. We've been sitting around on top of the world here for so many years, now it's time to get down and see what's going on in the world."

Shaffer has been an institution on the Kenai Peninsula since he moved here from Utah in 1960. He is well known and respected for his inexhaustible knowledge of everything natural in Alaska, from the biggest Sitka spruce tree to the tiniest insect that makes its home on it.

Shaffer can rattle off the poisonous or medicinal properties of every plant he comes across, identify any insect creeping in the forest and explain in detail the migratory patterns and life cycle of any bird that floats by overhead -- then whip out a paintbrush and recreate them in exact detail.

He has been imparting his immense amount of knowledge to students, friends, colleges and anyone who asks him for nearly four decades. At KPC he has taught a wide array of classes, from oil painting to outdoor survival to mycology -- the study of mushrooms.

Shaffer even writes his own textbooks. He wrote a Flora and Fauna of Alaska textbook, complete with photographs and sketches, for that class and is in the process of finishing another book about mushroom hunting.

"He's been outstanding," said Ginger Steffy, director of KPC. "He's very popular and he has a very good reputation. He does rather unique classes that are not necessarily part of a regular college offering. What made him so valuable to the college is his ability to teach in a variety of subjects. There isn't anybody else that teaches what Shaffer teaches."

More often than not, Shaffer's classes are totally full, as are the out-of-school teaching excursions he leads, like mushroom hunts and safari trips to Africa.

"He's so knowledgeable about Alaska, its plants and animals, and he's able to talk about and present that information in a way that the average person can understand it," Steffy said. "It's really hard to stump Boyd, he's so knowledgeable, and I think that's what people are going to miss the most about him. They consider Boyd a resident encyclopedia on natural Alaska life. Since he's not only retiring but leaving the area, they see that as a local expert who's not going to be available anymore. Students have been talking to me all year about how much they'll miss him."

Billie Gillilan of Soldotna has studied with Shaffer for more than 20 years and is taking his Oil Painting for Pleasure class this semester.

"I think a lot of Boyd," she said. "He has gotten so many people interested in art. He will really be missed."

Aby Ala of Kenai has taken Shaffer's Flora and Fauna of Alaska, Oil Painting and Outdoor Survival classes. Ala's mother also took classes from Shaffer, as did Ala's children.

Shaffer's classes were the first college classes Ala had ever taken, so she was nervous going into them. But from the beginning, he made everyone very comfortable and made everything very understandable, she said.

"I'm one of his huge fans," Ala said. "He made everything that you were doing seem possible and made everything relevant. He just really inspired confidence. He's just terribly encouraging. I don't think he cared what kind of education you brought to his class, he just cared what you did in his class. Everybody who ever took classes form him learned a lot. I don't think anyone could walk away unchanged, you definitely look at everything differently."

As valued as Shaffer is for his exhaustive knowledge of Alaska, it is that extent of knowledge, in part, that is motivating him to leave. Shaffer was born with a question mark over his head, and since he's answered all the questions he's found in Alaska, he wants to find a new venue to feed his curiosity, he said.

"I've been teaching here for a lot of years, but it's been a labor of love," Shaffer said. "I've loved it thoroughly, but the thing is that it's about time I started to do some other stuff. I'm a little disappointed in one thing, wherever I go in the state of Alaska, I never see anything new. When I first went to Belize, I walked into the jungle and said 'what's this?' Although I knew an awful lot, when I bumped into 200 species of trees in 1 acre I thought 'this is a lifetime of work.'"

At 76, some would say Shaffer has already completed a lifetime of work and should use his retirement to kick back and relax. Shaffer, however, is not one of those people.

Doing nothing is the thing that would kill me, it would absolutely wipe me out," he said. "Most people slow down when they get older, but I think when people get older is when they should put it in second gear and get ready for high gear."

Shaffer and his wife will certainly have enough to keep them busy in Belize. Shaffer will continue his artwork and his scientific studies.

He hopes to catalog Central American flora and follow the paths of migrating birds, among other pursuits. And he has already set himself up to teach free art classes to members of his community in Belize.

Susan Shaffer will be far from bored herself.

Like her husband, she is a naturalist and looks forward to spending time exploring the jungle. She handles the financial affairs of the family and of selling Shaffer's artwork. She also operates the Web site where Shaffer markets his paintings.

Once the Shaffers arrive in their new home, the first order of business will be constructing a new home. They plan to purchase property and build a house in Belize.

As of yet, their exact departure and travel plans have not been arranged, and they like it that way.

"We're not on a schedule. Now that Boyd is retiring, we've just had it with alarm clocks and schedules and things like that, so we have no idea when we're going to hit anywhere, and we like that," Susan said.

Shaffer will teach one last class at the college over the summer while the couple prepares for the move. They plan to sell their house and a lot of their belongings and ship the rest to Belize.

Then, sometime in September, they will get in their trailer and start their trip, making several stops along the way in Washington, Colorado, Utah and other places to visit family and friends.

Picking up and moving to a remote foreign country after retirement may be unconventional for most people, but the Shaffers insist they made their decision carefully. They've been spending their Christmas breaks in Belize since 1998 and have come to know the people and country very well.

Besides, in the context of Shaffer's life, this decision is hardly out of place.

Shaffer grew up in Utah, feeding his scientific curiosity and indulging his love of art from a young age. By the time he was 16, he was a regular lecturer for the ornithology department at the University of Utah. When he was 17, he was elected president of Utah's Audubon Society. He didn't take that post though, as he was sent off to fight for the Army in World War II instead.

After the war, Shaffer spent a year studying art at the prestigious Sorbonne in Paris. When he came back to the United States, he became the curator of the Tracy Aviary in Salt Lake City.

Then one day he got a call from Walt Disney Studios, which wanted him to go to California to be a naturalist consultant for their films. When Shaffer said he wouldn't move, Disney moved the animal film productions to him in Utah.

It was his job with Disney that brought Shaffer to Alaska. He was sent to do some filming in the Alaska Interior. While he was waiting for his flight back to Utah in Anchorage, Shaffer bumped into an old friend whom he grew up with in Utah. The man was building a cabin in Moose Pass and took Shaffer to the peninsula to show him the area.

That tour was all it took. Shaffer went back to Utah just long enough to quit his jobs at the aviary and Disney and pack up his family to move to Moose Pass.

Shaffer worked as a self-employed taxidermist until the Forest Service came knocking at his door, literally, and persuaded him to work for them in 1961, which he did for about 10 years.

During that time, Shaffer got another knock on his door. This time it was Clayton Brockel, the first director of KPC, who asked Shaffer to be a part-time art teacher at the college. Shaffer accepted and began as an adjunct professor in 1966, then quit his job at the Forest Service to become a full-time professor in 1977.

In September, that time will come to an end. The Shaffers plan to stay in touch with their many friends in Alaska through the Internet and the guest house they plan to build in Belize.

"We've made so many friends here, and we will miss Alaska, especially the people," Susan said. "But I have told everyone 'hey, just come down and visit me and then I won't have to miss you.'"

Although they will miss their many friends in Alaska, they are looking forward to a warmer climate and the new life that awaits them, they said.

"If I were told tomorrow that I only have six months to live, I would say 'hey, I've had a darn good life," Shaffer said. "There's always more to do, but I have had a very good life so far. I've accomplished everything I've set out to do and more. I have children that love me and a loving wife and I can go down and play in Belize. What more can you ask for?"

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