Pennies from heaven
Shirley Ann Sackman, accomplished musician, saver of pennies and beloved Clark professor, leaves a legacy to Clark College following her death in March.
By Shelby Sebens
Shirley Ann Sackman never took no for an answer. She never made excuses or let challenges deter her from her life’s ambitions. Despite being born without the use of her right arm, she became an accomplished musician. Although she lived in a time when opportunities were limited for women, she excelled in endeavors mostly reserved for men, and she became a tenured professor at Clark and widely respected editor.
The beloved retired Clark College faculty member died March 5, 2019, at the age of 90. Sackman’s profound effect on the college’s faculty, staff and students is now playing out through the sharing of stories about her dedication and financial generosity.
None of the barriers Sackman faced as a young woman were extraordinary to her. A refined scholar’s determination was ingrained into her very being from childhood. It was natural and normal to succeed, to get a higher education and pursue a reputable career.
“I have to admit, I always aimed for the best,” Sackman said in a 2016 interview with Clark Partners magazine.
That same determination and passion transferred to Clark College where she taught, edited and inspired others for more than four decades. Her presence left a lasting imprint on students, colleagues, friends and family.
Sackman was born June 20, 1928, in Longview, Wash., to Ralph B. and Lolita B. Sackman. She was the eldest of three children. She faced an obstacle that could have deterred her and could cause challenges for anyone, even today in the era of advanced technology and progressive societal movements.
According to her brother Ralph Sackman, Shirley Ann’s birth was breech—her feet entered the world first. The unusual position caused injury during delivery and she never gained the use of her right arm.
Having a physical challenge opened her up to discrimination and roadblocks, yet it never slowed her down. She chose early on not to dwell on it.
“She did not look upon it as something that would hold her back and it didn’t,” Ralph said. “I don’t remember her ever saying, ‘please help me with this because it takes two hands.’”
On the contrary, she persevered and obtained multiple degrees, awards and accolades. She didn’t pursue her academic aspirations beyond earning a master’s degree, in part because she thought she would get married and have children.
“I thought, I may as well be honest, a woman with a Ph.D. is less likely to marry, and here I didn’t [marry) anyhow,” Sackman said.
Instead of marriage and children of her own, Sackman chose to commit herself to others through teaching and playing music that would defy the limitations society placed on her at the time.
Sackman’s ability to not only confront social and physical barriers, but to break through and stand strong as a role model for others is testament to her upbringing. She believed education isn’t as much about a building or a location as it is about having a bright mind that is willing to learn.
Lisa Gibert, CEO of Clark College Foundation, fondly recalls Sackman’s mantra about her students: “Give me a bright mind and amazing things can happen.”
Gibert was close to Sackman, having worked with her for decades to ensure Sackman’s academic legacy and philanthropic goals of enriching students, faculty and staff were met.
“My life has forever been impacted by this wonderful woman. I am blessed to have had her as a friend. I believe Clark College meant the world to her; however, I think the reverse is also true,” Gibert said.
As a young girl, several doctors examined her disfigured arm. “They all said, ‘give her as many opportunities as you can.’ And they said, ‘try music.’ And the only thing you could play with one hand was the trumpet. And so there I was,” Sackman said.
Ralph remembers his sister playing in the high school band and practicing diligently at home. “My father wanted her to be an artist and she did do some art, but she enjoyed playing the trumpet,” Ralph said, recalling that his father had concerns about a career as a trumpeter because, at that time, paying careers for musicians were mostly for men. She faced discrimination during her lifetime, particularly when pursuing music, but she rose above it.
After high school, Sackman landed at the private liberal arts school Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash. A year into her studies, she was having a hard time accepting the high cost of the college, so she transferred to the University of Washington to study music. She soon found her stride, even joining the University Concert Band playing trumpet. She graduated magna cum laude at the University of Washington in 1950. Sackman continued her studies at Teachers College, Columbia University in New York City, where she earned a master’s in music on June 7, 1951. This would be one of two master degrees she would obtain in her career.
While studying in New York, she took private trumpet lessons at the prestigious music, dance and drama institution, The Juilliard School, from William Vacchiano, the principal trumpeter of the New York Philharmonic. This was one place she ran head-on into discrimination. Sackman remembered Vacchiano telling her the only reason he was giving her lessons was because her family could pay for them.
He couldn’t get her a job in the orchestra, he told her, and she couldn’t play in the philharmonic because it was all male, except for the harpist.
“Because I was a woman, he couldn’t get me a job. I vowed that I was going to show him. He thought a girl, and one who played with her left hand, was a hopeless student,” Sackman said. “But he changed his mind. I practiced and practiced and practiced.”
‘You’re doing better than any of them,’ she recalls the principal trumpeter telling her.
Sackman went on to play in symphony orchestras in America. She represented the United States in 1954, playing trumpet in the International Revue, a concert at Union Theater at the University of Melbourne. At the time, Sackman was teaching music and English at East Brunswick Girls’ Teaching School in Brunswick, Australia, which is a suburb of Melbourne, Australia.
She taught at East Brunswick for about a year before returning to the U.S. to teach at a junior high school in Seattle for about seven years, Ralph recalls. Though she loved music and played trumpet most of her life, nothing compared to Sackman’s passion for the English language and proper grammar in particular.
“She always was, from the beginning, ever since I knew her, very particular about English and very respectful of the English language,” Ralph said.
Furthermore, Sackman’s academic focus never wavered and she earned a second master’s degree during a sabbatical from teaching. The degree was in Interdisciplinary Studies from the University of Oregon’s Teaching program in 1965.
Teaching English as a career for Sackman started as just a job—an avenue for her to be a professional. But it morphed into so much more.
“As she kept doing it, it became her expression of that which became fundamental to her being, in particular because she was such an Anglophile and such an English person, and here she is teaching that which she loved,” Ralph said.
Sackman started working at Clark College in 1966 and it quickly became her family. She retired as a tenured faculty member in February 1992, but worked as a part-time instructor from June 1993 to April 2006, and volunteered in the Clark’s Tutoring Center through 2007.
Later in her career, Sackman also worked as an associate editor for the Victorian Periodicals Review. In that position, Sackman edited manuscripts mostly from the U.S. and the United Kingdom, while coaxing various scholars to review recently published books, said Larry Weirather, a colleague in the 1980s and 1990s.
The year she officially retired, Clark College President Robert K. Knight awarded Sackman with the first-ever Presidential Coin, an honor given to faculty and staff members who provide exemplary service to Clark students, the college and community.
Ray Korpi, a Clark English professor, said the decision to include Sackman in that first group of coin recipients showed what she meant to the institution.
“The room erupted with joy,” Korpi said. “She encapsulated a lot of the spirit of the institution and being an educator.”
Ralph said his sister found compassion and a kindness she could return at Clark. “She really loved Clark and the people there,” he said. “Clark became to her, I think, more than her family had ever become. She looked upon Clark as the home and source of love that I don’t believe she experienced elsewhere.”
And that love was returned. Several former colleagues have fond memories of her kind gestures, passion for learning and frugal ways, including finding cookies at events on campus to share with others.
“She’s a one of a kind,” said Joan Raney, who was Sackman’s student in 1973 and later worked as her administrative assistant. “She’s the most magnificent woman I’ve ever met. Thinking about her makes me happy.”
Sackman had a soft and sweet side, but she was also known for her strictness with students and adherence to the proper written word.
“Shirley Ann could seem stern and businesslike, but it was all a façade because she really had a generous heart,” long-time English adjunct Nancy Bisbee said. “In addition, she was a great lover of literature and the English language, and I think that love came through in her conversations with students and faculty alike. She set high standards for students because she set them for herself. She was an excellent model of strength and perseverance.”
Gathering pennies pays off
Shirley Ann Sackman regularly picked up pennies from the sidewalk on campus and gave them to people as a friendly gesture. Those pennies and her acumen as a saver accumulated over the years, allowing her to support individuals near and dear to her heart. Now, in death, Sackman’s legacy will have long-lasting and profound affect at Clark College.
Rich in culture and friendships, Sackman led a simple yet fulfilling life. She made smart decisions about money and was a savvy investor. In recognizing her dad for instilling in her the value of hard work and an education, Clark College’s Honors program will now bear her father’s name: Ralph B. Sackman.
“Shirley’s commitment and generosity to her Clark family remains unparalleled,” said Lisa Gibert, CEO of Clark College Foundation. “Whether providing encouraging words, correcting grammar or making a contribution in honor of someone on campus often overlooked, Shirley spread the spirit of joy, kindness and charity that brightened the day of anyone she interacted with.”
Sackman emphatically loved all employees at Clark. She brought hope, inspiration and a desire to people to do their best.
“For me, I choose to smile and carry on in her memory the generosity in spirit and philanthropy that makes Shirley a true inspiration,” said Gibert.
The educators who worked alongside Sackman agree about two things: If you have a student from her class, they will know grammar. If you need something edited, take it to Shirley.
“I was always so insecure. I would never send anything out until I checked with Shirley Ann,” English professor Kimberly Sullivan said. “Everyone knew if you wanted it perfect, you went to Shirley Ann.”
Despite her precision and talent for the English language, Sackman was also humble. “She didn’t lord it over us in any way,” Sullivan said. “She wasn’t condescending. She was so willing to help and so generous with her help.”
“Students flocked to her classes, knowing they would have a strong and supportive experience. Her ability to develop writing skills in those who had little experience and self-confidence was truly remarkable,” former Clark College President Tana Hasart said.
Her most cherished opportunities while at Clark may have been the times she traveled to England. “I think the English educational system is one of the best in the world,” Sackman said.
She looked forward to summer trips to the Oxford University Summer Studies seminars in England where she studied literature and culture. “She was always very excited about it when she would get the letter inviting her,” Korpi said.
A diploma from an International Graduate Summer School in Literature, History and Society from 1870 to the Present Day held in Oxford, England in 1985 hung on her wall until her death, Ralph said.
Sackman touched the lives of those she served and taught with during her tenure at Clark. However, the pennies she used to pick up around campus and her diligent attitude of saving compounded her ability to leave a legacy for generations.
Be mindful should you be one to receive Sackman’s generosity as a student or employee at Clark. She wouldn’t tolerate a shorthand Tweet of thanks; you can be sure she would mark them all as spelling errors.
Shelby Sebens is a freelance journalist in Portland, Ore. She has written for Reuters and various local media outlets. She also teaches journalism at Clark College and has a master’s in public affairs reporting.