Sam R. Hall: I owe my career to Sue Shaw-Smith

·3 min read

Jun. 26—When I was a sophomore at Tupelo High School, I lucked into the lead role in "Fools." It was a lot of fun and started my high school, college and (at least for a little while) community theatre "career."

It was through theatre that I got to know Dr. Sue Shaw-Smith, then an assistant principal at the high school and a huge supporter of the arts. She and then-theatre director Debby Gibbs told me I needed to try out for the musical, "Annie," to which I promptly — and repeatedly — told them, "I can't sing."

They both gave me the, "People always say they can't sing, and they can. You can at least be in the chorus."

And, each time, I told them the same thing, "I can't sing."

Dr. Sue Shaw (most of us called her Dr. Sue Shaw, running the names together as if they were one word, like seesaw) all but threatened me to try out, so I did.

One bar into the song, Gibbs held up her hand and stopped my audition.

"You're right," she said. "You can't sing."

I was not going to star on broadway, but a little more than a year later, Dr. Sue Shaw nevertheless started me on my true career path — inadvertent as it was.

She was working on schedules and called me to her office. Her goal was to make sure I had an off period that would allow me to work in the theatre, and she still had a spot to fill.

"You can write, can't you?" she said in a tone that sounded like a question but was really more of a statement.

"Yeah. Sure," I responded, with only an inkling that I probably should have asked why she cared.

"Good. You're going to be on the newspaper staff."

Notice she didn't ask if I wanted to be on the newspaper staff. She didn't ask if I enjoyed writing. She simply told me what I was going to do. And I while I have no idea what my alternatives might have been, I am forever thankful for her putting me in that class.

When I speak to journalism students and other groups, I often tell this story. Were it not for Dr. Sue Shaw, who knows where I'd be. Not just because of that class, but because of her influence on me.

And I'm far from the only one who can say that.

Since her death on Tuesday, June 21, the stories from former students have poured forth. She left her mark on countless people. Some of those marks were scars — no doubt — because she was one tough woman. But she was tough on us because she loved us, she knew what we could be and she would not accept anything but our best — regardless of what our best was.

She's been called "mama bear" by a few students, and that's an apt description. Fierce would be another. Loving. Hilarious. A bit crazy. All of those fit.

She was large in life and in spirit. She was a force. And I remember her daughter, Heidi, with her at the school and on some trips. This tiny, precocious child who was the center of Dr. Sue Shaws world. Watching those two together was something to behold.

But what strikes me as I have heard the stories from those who have shared her impact is how many tell of Dr. Sue Shaw forcing them to try new things or to explore interests they likely would not have done on their own. Mine is one of those stories.

God's speed, Dr. Sue Shaw-Smith. You will be missed as you were loved — greatly and by many.

SAM R. HALL is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at or follow @samrhall on Twitter.