In memoriam: Shearlean Duke, 1946 - 2011

Matthew Anderson
Western Today editor

Shearlean Duke, 64, chair of the Journalism Department at Western Washington University and a longtime professor and mentor of WWU students, faculty and staff, died of brain cancer Feb. 2. She was at home with her beloved husband, Robert. Duke had been battling cancer for about a year and a half.

Duke was born in Copperhill, Tennessee, on June 21, 1946, to Maynard and OvaLee Hamby.

Colleagues and former students, friends all, remember Shearlean as a terrific mentor and listener. She was accomplished in the fields of journalism and public relations, and she took seriously her role as a leader.

“Shearlean changed my life,” says Jack Keith, a journalism lecturer at WWU. “I had a career in daily newspapers and decided I wanted to try teaching journalism. I had never taught, but Shearlean decided to take a chance and hired me. She coached me through the rough first months, gave me plenty of guidance and was there when I needed help. Later, she wrote me a note that said she had never doubted I could do it. I won't forget that.”

Again and again, memories of Shearlean mention her ability to guide and to mentor. Those roles, at least in Duke’s time at Western, defined her.

“Shearlean was an original proponent of service learning in the Journalism Department, and she carried that interest into the international arena through our Kenya program,” says Tim Costello, director of WWU’s Center for Service-Learning and leader of several trips to Kenya to work with Duke and others in the Ombogo Girls’ Academy there. “Kenyans fell in love with Shearlean. She had the ability to form bonds with everyone instantly. Shearlean was so encouraging of young Kenyan women who wanted to pursue journalism as a career, having been a trailblazer herself as one of the first female editors at the Los Angeles Times.”

Duke developed the public relations sequence in the Journalism Department after coming to Western in 1999. She earned her bachelor’s degree from Tennessee Tech University and her master’s from Chapman University. She spent more than a quarter-century working in the journalism and public relations fields, including as a reporter and editor at the L.A. Times and as a senior communications specialist for the health care giant Allergan, before deciding to teach and mentor students. In addition to Western, Duke taught at East Carolina University and the University of California, Irvine.

Duke was a born mentor, says Marie Eaton, a professor in Fairhaven College of Interdisciplinary Studies who worked with Duke in Kenya. Student photojournalist Kathryn Bachen was given a number of difficult assignments on one trip there, and Duke was always close by to provide support, Eaton says.

“She was right there at her shoulder, letting Kathryn have the lead but also providing support when needed,” Eaton says. “You could really see Shearlean’s kind and firm hand. She was a great faculty mentor. I’m sorry that more Western students will not have the opportunity to learn from her. She had deep experience in the field but with a real curiosity about how to translate that in a way today’s students could understand.”

“Shearlean was a wonderful person to work with,” adds Kristi Tyran, an associate professor of management at Western and another colleague of Duke’s working with the Slum Doctor Programme in Kenya. “I have many memories of sitting on a bus with her, sharing thoughts and perceptions of our experiences in Kenya, all while bouncing along a bumpy, dusty road. She absorbed everything and then wrote eloquently about it. I will miss her spirit, her wit, her honesty, her friendship.”

As the news spread Wednesday, those who knew Shearlean flooded the Internet with memories of their former leader and friend.

“Even in the last months of her life, she remained a dedicated and active educator, serving as the internship advisor for myself and others last quarter,” writes Colleen Toomey, who graduated from Western in December, on her blog. “Though her passing is a tremendous loss for the department and campus community, her commitment to excellence in journalism and education will certainly live on through others. The outpouring of gratitude from students and alumni today, just through social media, speaks volumes to the impact of fine educators like Shearlean and the importance of high-quality journalism and PR in the ever-changing world.”

“Shearlean was an excellent teacher,” alumnus Lance Henderson writes in an online memorial to Duke. “She had a quiet way about her. Her words were soft, but her presence was always profoundly felt. She pushed students to be better and built a life and career that backed up her talk. I had the privilege of working one on one with her, and she was always immensely supportive of my work. I will miss her smile and her subtle Southern accent. As her students, we will carry her with us always.”

A memorial to Shearlean Duke has been set up in the Journalism Department offices on the second floor of the Communications Facility on campus, and anyone who wants to may drop by and sign it. Family members are working out the details of a memorial service for some time in the next several weeks, and details will be released as soon as they are available.

“Shearlean was a role model to me as a professor and as a person,” says Carolyn Nielsen, a Western assistant professor of journalism. “I will always admire, and try to emulate, her strength, positive attitude and the way she treated all people with kindness and respect. She understood that every person had something to teach her and was grateful for the gift of that knowledge. I looked to her as a woman who modeled grace, work ethic, curiosity and openness. I am grateful to have known her and had her influence in my life.”

Shearlean loved to travel with Robert; the two of them chartered a boat in Australia and took their own boat on a round trip between Bellingham and Glacier Bay, Alaska. In 2007, they trundled 6,000 miles in an RV, from the tip of Baja, Mexico, to the Yukon’s Arctic Circle, blogging all the way.

“Shearlean was an excellent friend, always caring and thoughtful,” Costello says. “Her very proper southern upbringing and perfect etiquette used to scare me and made me feel very rough around the edges, until I realized that was also her way of demonstrating human kindness, grace and a caring for others. She always took time to listen and to be grateful for the small moments. She brought all of these same qualities to the end of her life, including unflinching honesty about her diagnosis with brain cancer.”

Shearlean is survived by her husband, Robert; sister Janet Jones (and husband Martin Jones) of Idyllwild, Calif.; nephew Jeff Bain and wife Kristin and great-nephews Jake, 7, and Ryan, 5, of Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif.

“If Shearlean lived an abbreviated life, it is heartening to know that it was filled with adventures, risk, challenges, inspiration and love,” Costello says. “We are sad that Shearlean is not around any longer to speak her own brand of perfect truth.”

Friday, February 4, 2011 - 11:47am
Shearlean Duke on a trip to Kenya with the Slum Doctor Programme to work with the Ombogo Girls' Academy. Courtesy photo

Shearlean Duke on a trip to Kenya with the Slum Doctor Programme to work with the Ombogo Girls' Academy. Courtesy photo

Shearlean Duke. Photo courtesy of John Harris | WWU

Shearlean Duke. Photo courtesy of John Harris | WWU

Shearlean Duke on a trip to Kenya with the Slum Doctor Programme to work with the Ombogo Girls' Academy. Courtesy photo

Shearlean Duke on a trip to Kenya with the Slum Doctor Programme to work with the Ombogo Girls' Academy. Courtesy photo