Harry Shaffer keeps a small stack of teacher evaluations in his desk at his Lawrence home.
The 89-year-old Kansas University economics professor emeritus says he’ll reluctantly give up teaching next year, as a breathing condition is forcing him to retire completely after 60 years.
He still enjoys reading over some of the comments he’s received from students.
“He may be the coolest teacher I’ve ever had,” reads one. “He should be chancellor of the university.”
• • •
Harry G. Shaffer was born in Vienna, Austria, in 1919, and came to Kansas University 52 years ago, following stops in Italy, Cuba, New York and Alabama.
After only a brief conversation, it becomes evident that the professor enjoys telling stories.
He tells the one about how he came to KU — how they were “lucky enough to get me,” he said. He left the University of Alabama in 1956 after the expulsion of Autherine Lucy. She was the first black student admitted to the university but was suspended because the university could not provide her a safe environment.
After she sued the institution, it expelled her on the grounds that she had defamed the university.
Shaffer joined 28 faculty members who quit the university in protest.
“We could no longer be associated with the university,” he said. “KU hired me sight unseen.”
• • •
Shaffer turns over another evaluation, placing the ones he’s read into a stack on his coffee table.
“Reminds me of Einstein! Great hair! Best accent ever! Ever!”
• • •
Always a teacher, Shaffer asks for a guess at his research specialty in his earlier years. His hint — it no longer exists.
After revealing the answer (Soviet economics), Shaffer relayed some teaching strategies that served him well in his later years. He taught only one class then, an introductory class for nonmajors.
He enjoyed distilling the subject to its bare essentials, making it interesting for everyone, whether they were majoring in piano or basketball, he said.
He explained to students why we have money in the first place.
It’s better than bartering, he would say, because what you have might not be what someone else wants. He illustrates the concept by talking about Mrs. Henry Ford’s trip to the grocery.
Mrs. Ford walks in, needing some salt, Shaffer would say.
“I want one blue convertible,” Shaffer would tell his class, playing the role of the storekeeper. “And I’ll give you 45,000 pounds of salt.”
• • •
Shaffer keeps flipping through evaluations. “Look at this one,” he says.
“This is the power Shaffer has: As a secure heterosexual male, even I would like to bake him warm cookies. Lately I have found myself wearing revealing clothes to class. I don’t know what’s happening, but I hope it ends after this semester.”
• • •
Recently, Shaffer has taught only one large class, with up to 450 students.
As such, he came into contact with many, many students — more than 10,000 since 1990, alone, he guesses. He remains wildly popular among many of his students.
Shaffer even has an online fan club devoted to him on Facebook. It has nearly 750 members.
“It’s called ‘Harry Shaffer is the man!’” Shaffer said with a toothy grin, without needing to be reminded of its existence.
John Skoch, a Hastings, Neb., sophomore, belongs to the group.
“He’s a really good teacher,” Skoch said. “He’s really easy to relate to.”
Skoch recalled telling his father about Shaffer, only to learn that his father, too, took a course with the professor years ago.
This semester, while Shaffer’s condition kept him out of the classroom, he turned over teaching his course to his head teaching assistant, economics lecturer Sarah Frazelle. She will teach the course again next semester.
“They’re very large footsteps to follow in, but I’m trying,” she said.
She’s made efforts to still teach the class “Harry’s way,” teaching subjects that not everyone does in the course — like communism and socialism — while using his unique teaching methods.
“It’s important to make sure the students are interested,” Frazelle said. “But it’s also important to be fair.”
• • •
“I like it when they say I’m cute,” Shaffer said. “But this one, I’m not too sure about.”
“Harry Shaffer is the cutest professor @ KU! I want to give him a hug and introduce him to my Grandma.”
• • •
Shaffer told the story of how he met his wife, Betty.
He remembers the date when they met: March 29, 1984. He and Betty met on a train platform while he was attending a conference at Harvard University. Shaffer had been divorced for 10 years.
“Within an hour,” he said. “I knew that this was it.”
The only problem was, he was in Lawrence, and Betty was a social worker in California.
“I pursued her relentlessly,” Shaffer said, writing long letters three times a week and calling her every day. Betty moved to Lawrence within three months.
He remembered a colleague talking about his fast-moving relationship, saying it took longer for him to ask a woman on a date than it did for Shaffer to get Betty to move to Lawrence.
They’ve been married for 24 years.
Both say they’re best friends, and enjoy doing things like exercising, laughing and doing puzzles together.
“He’s a very sweet and loving person,” Betty said. “He makes you laugh. We’re just having a great time.”
• • •
After a class had turned in its evaluations, Shaffer would show them some of his old ones like these. They were almost 90 percent positive, he says, but he kept some of the others as well.
“RETIRE,” one reads. “You know the subject but cannot communicate clearly.”
• • •
Without teaching, Shaffer said he’ll have plenty to keep himself busy.
And he has a lifetime of stories to tell, too many to relay all at once. There’s the story about how he once had a class leave quietly so a sleeping student would wake up to a different class and teacher. There are stories about his bridge championship. There are stories from his service in the Army. And stories of teaching Spanish in Cuba, among many, many others.
He still goes shopping with his wife, still plays cards and will enjoy some more television now that his breathing condition has limited his ability to move around much.
But in the end, he’ll miss being able to teach, and he’ll miss his students.
“I hate to give them up,” he said.