If there’s such a thing as a born teacher, Elfrieda Shellenberger was it.
“As a very young girl, I would line up my dolls and play school with them,” she told me. “I would teach them the Sunday School lesson. And I even had a little grade book where I would mark their tardies and absences.”
Miss Shellenberger was my English Literature teacher at East High in 1960. I recently discovered that she still lives in Wichita. Because she was a teacher that some of my classmates and I remember well, I inquired at her senior care residence about meeting her for a short visit. She celebrated her 101st birthday on Dec. 24 and does not receive visits from long-ago acquaintances often, so it was necessary to work with her family. Happily, they agreed to help.
Elfrieda Mae Shellenberger was born in 1920. She was the oldest of five children who grew up in what are now Wichita’s North Riverside and Midtown neighborhoods. She attended North High School and was very active in school organizations. Raised in a devout family, she chose Bethany-Peniel College in Bethany, Okla., for higher education. She graduated in 1942 with a Bachelor of Arts degree. She later earned a Master of Arts degree in English from the University of Wisconsin and was hired to teach English at Wichita High School East. She was also named curriculum coordinator in the secondary English field by the Board of Education. Her mission was to revise teaching methods at that level.
In an amusing side note to that project, the Wichita Eagle published a short article on January 10, 1957, under the heading, “It Always Happens.” It recounted how Shellenberger was discussing spelling with the Wichita Council on Education when she noticed a misspelled error in a handout written by a consultant from the University of Kansas. She had a keen eye.
Many of us in Class of ’60 attest to how she influenced our studies and careers. In talking to other former classmates about her, I heard comments like, “She was my favorite teacher of all time,” “I found she had a quick wit which surprised me at times,” and, “What a gift she was to all of us who enjoyed her English Literature class!”
In an email correspondence, her niece, Becky Shellenberger of Wichita, had this to say about her aunt: “In recent years, I have come to learn that Elfrieda was very respected and very well liked by students and other teachers. I believe she made her students learn in her classes. She always worked hard and never left any chore undone.”
Another niece, Judy Nash, brought to my attention a speech that then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates (East High class of ’61) made at the 2009 East High graduation ceremony. Gates named six teachers who had influenced him, including Elfrieda Shellenberger. He referred to her as one of those teachers who “opened his eyes to the world … and was a model of decency and character.”
According to Miss Shellenberger, one of the most rewarding aspects of having been a teacher is that she has met many former students since she retired. She said she’d been recognized in odd places “all over the world” while travelling with teacher friends. And, of course, in Wichita many approach her to chat when they see her. She treasures the cards and letters that she receives from former students.
In 1986, when Elfrieda Shellenberger retired from her job as Chair of the English Department at East High, she had completed 36 years with the Wichita public schools plus seven in other school districts. “I have had mixed feelings about leaving,” she told the Wichita Eagle-Beacon. “I will very much miss the involvement with students, other teachers and personnel, the professionalism, the committee work, and the total involvement.” Shellenberger said she had a lot of things to do, but didn’t plan to forget about the field to which she devoted so many years.
And so she did have a lot of things to do. She was a member of the Church of the Nazarene, was active in its Bible study and missionary committee and served many years as secretary to the church board. She belonged to the Wichita Art Museum, Wichita-Sedgwick County Historical Museum and Botanica. She had season tickets to Music Theater of Wichita and attended with a friend who had “connections” that allowed them to go backstage. Of course, she loved reading and still does. Biographies and stories about the pioneer life are favorite topics. She participates in exercise classes, bingo, and enjoys the social atmosphere of mealtimes at her assisted living residence.
She has always enjoyed a close relationship with her family and loves gatherings with them. Her many nieces, nephews and their children look forward to these occasions, too. With a big smile, she said that they have many questions for her and they call her the family historian.
On the day in February that I visited with Elfrieda Shellenberger, I found her to be just a slightly older version of the woman I knew so many years ago. She has a quick, broad smile and a strong, resonant voice. She tires more easily but still personifies the poised teacher that directed our discussions of whatever book we were reading in English Lit and marked up our papers in English Comp.