Gary L. Shaffer, Ph.D., one of the state’s leading experts on social work practice and a staunch advocate for children who became a recognizable voice against the use of corporal punishment within North Carolina’s public schools, died on Sept. 4. He was 62.
Shaffer, who dedicated more than half of his life to the social work field and to preparing students for social work practice, joined UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Social Work in 1986 as director of the field education program. He was later named director of the School’s summer program.
Gary Shaffer, Ph.D.
Although he had been battling colon cancer for several years, the associate professor remained extremely active at UNC and within the North Carolina community, focusing much of his time and energy on international social work and the development of the social work practice within the state’s public schools.
Shaffer, who served as a member of the N.C. Professional School Social Work Standards Committee, also supervised more than 300 MSW students within North Carolina school districts. He was responsible for licensing school social work practitioners through the N.C. Department of Public Instruction; more than 500 practitioners earned state licensure under Shaffer’s leadership.
“Gary put his heart and soul into his work and into achieving his goals,” said School Dean Jack M. Richman. “I have heard from former students and faculty colleagues from across the country, all of whom have noted what a great loss is being felt at Gary’s passing. He was a real gentleman who cared deeply for his students, family, friends, colleagues and profession. I will miss him mightily.”
Shaffer’s work throughout North Carolina earned him the title of “Dr. School Social Work,” added Anna Scheyett, associate dean for academic affairs at UNC’s School of Social Work. “He was just an incredible advocate for students,” she said. “Social work always came first for him.”
Born in Harrisburg, Pa., Shaffer first began studying social work at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa., where he graduated with a BA degree. He earned an MA from the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago and received a doctorate from the School of Social Work at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Shaffer went on to teach at U of I for 14 years as a lecturer, assistant professor and associate professor. During his tenure in Illinois, he also served as director of the Region V Child Welfare Training Center. The center worked with public and private child welfare agencies and accredited BSW and MSW programs in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin.
An enthusiastic and compassionate teacher, Shaffer was a tireless advocate for children and often spoke out against the use of corporal punishment in the nation’s public school systems, including in North Carolina’s schools. The state is one of about 20 across the country that still allows paddling, although some individual counties have banned it.
Shaffer led a 2007 research study on the use of corporal punishment in North Carolina schools, and was often contacted by the media for his expertise on the issue. In an interview with the Raleigh News & Observer in March 2007, Shaffer noted that spanking could lead to more aggressive behavior among children.
“I’m not saying for every child that gets struck it leads to this,” he told the newspaper. “But when you hit a child, you really don’t know what their psychological situation is.”
Shaffer demonstrated equally passionate support for an anti-school bullying bill, which North Carolina legislators narrowly adopted this summer. The act protects students from harassment for numerous reasons, including on the basis of race, religion or disabilities. Some state lawmakers and opponents’ groups criticized the law for including language that specifically protects students for actual or perceived sexual orientation.
“I think what Gary did around the bullying bill is the perfect example of an academic change agent who took the research and translated it in a way that could change policy and really help kids,” Scheyett said.
Shaffer’s peers and colleagues officially recognized his social work leadership and advocacy in 2007, when the North Carolina chapter of the National Association of Social Workers named him “Social Work Advocate of the Year.” Among other efforts, Shafer was praised for pressing “for increased salaries and credentialing for school social workers, statewide job standards and job descriptions, recognition of higher level functions for school social workers, and confidentiality statutes for school social workers.”
“He was relentless in his advocacy for underserved students in schools and was never afraid to write a senator or sign a petition voicing his opinion on policies that could be improved for schools,” said Joelle Powers, a UNC School of Social Work assistant clinical professor.
“It was an honor to be his student, then his colleague, and finally his friend,” added Powers, who twice co-taught courses with Shaffer. “What a loss to the school and community, but what an amazing legacy he leaves.”
Students gravitated to Shaffer, not only for his approachable demeanor but because of his encyclopedic knowledge and enthusiasm for the social work profession, said MSW student Mary Shannon Thomas.
“He was, for me, the perfect balance between somebody who knew the academic side of it and the policy side backwards and forwards and was able to make it applicable in a real world setting in a concrete way,” Thomas said. “He will definitely be missed.”
Family, friends and colleagues also fondly noted Shaffer’s charisma and wit. “He loved life and family and friends, and he had a humorous touch highlighted with a mischievous smile,” said Maeda Galinsky, a Kenan Distinguished Professor at UNC’s School of Social Work. “He was a wonderful colleague, teacher and friend.”
Whether he was handing out lollipops, advice or jokes, Shaffer will be remembered as “a giver,” said Natasha Bowen, an associate professor at UNC’s School of Social Work. “Giving to the profession, to MSW students, to field education, and to his colleagues was more important to him than counting publications or having a fancy car,” Bowen said. “…He was always giving.”
Shaffer is survived by his wife Denise; daughter Lisa; brother Gil and numerous nieces and nephews. A funeral Mass was held Sept. 9 at St. Thomas More Church in Chapel Hill. In lieu of flowers, the family requests that memorial contributions be made to UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, UNC-CH, CB# 7295, Chapel Hill, NC, 27599-7295, or to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, 501 St. Jude Place, Memphis, TN, 38105.
By Susan White
9/17/09 update: A “Celebration of Life” will be held at the School of Social Work on Tues., Sept. 29, 5:30-7:30 p.m. in the auditorium. Flyer (pdf)
2008 WUNC radio interview: Discipline in schools
2007 TV interview video: Corporal punishment in N.C. Schools
Curriculum Vitae (pdf)
High resolution photo (2008; photo credit: Tom Fuldner)
“Helping Hands” community page – updates posted by the Shaffer family
Shaffer recently received an award from Triangle High Five Regional Partnership in honor of his service on its board of directors. He was presented a framed graphic illustrating the focus of the organization, whose goals include achieving a 100% graduation rate for high school students. View larger