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From Coaching to Fine Art: 1934 ONU alumnus continues to create

Phil ShipeWhether the setting was a gymnasium, a football field, or an art studio, Phil Shipe (BA ’34) has always found life and the people around him interesting. Something of a philosopher, Shipe looked back over the choices, the events, and the people he met in his 83 years and decided they added up to some satisfying memories.

He attended Simon Gratz high school in Philadelphia, a large school with 5,000 students in the upper three grades. It was so big, he says, “I was there for two years before I ever saw the girl I would marry, Mary Pemberton Freed.”

After high school graduation, Shipe had academic decisions to make. He had lost out on a football scholarship at Penn State because of a high school football injury, but he had also been offered a scholarship to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. His love for athletics won over art as a career, and he turned down the art scholarship.

The country was entering the period of the “Great Depression.” Decisions had to be made with finances in mind, so Shipe decided to look for a small college with a tuition he could afford. The most important qualification was that it offered a major in physical education.

At his Methodist Church, he found information on Ohio Northern. Shipe says he had never been west of the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania so Ada, Ohio seemed “way out west.” But the Pennsylvania railroad went through the town and the Lincoln Highway was close so he could hitchhike home. In the kind of quip his friends wait for, he told a reporter, “The cultured East sent missionaries to Ohio, men like Johnny Appleseed, Anthony Wayne, and Phil Shipe.”

When he looks back on his Ohio Northern years, he decides, “I ran into some very fine people.” He remembers President Williams “who greatly impressed me,” and his English professor, Dr. C.H. Freeman, who “was an outstanding teacher.” Of his coaches, Clyde and Harris Lamb, he says, “If I’d looked the world over, I don’t think I could have found two better people to be associated with for four years in athletics.”

He was an active student, playing football and participating in track. A class officer, president of the Y.M.C.A. and a member of Delta Sigma Phi fraternity, Phil has some good memories of faculty and students he met during his four years at ONU.

After graduation in 1934, the country was deeper into the depression and jobs were scarce. The Lamb brothers loaned him their Fords so he could look for a job. He says he must have covered 2,500 miles before he found a teaching job in Fulton County at a little town named Ai (pronounced A-eye).

When he reported for work in Ai, he found he was the principal as well as the teacher for six subjects, including art, and the coach for all boys’ and girls’ sports. His salary was $975 a year, and he paid $7 a week for room, board, and laundry. The only catch was that he had to share the room and the bed with the superintendent. “Never thought I’d say I slept with a superintendent,” he says.

Phil ShipeThe next year, he married “Pem,” the girl he met in the Philadelphia high school halls. It’s evident that was a wise decision for the Shipes have celebrated a 58th wedding anniversary. Their first home was a farmhouse without plumbing or electricity, but at least Phil could leave the bed he shared with the superintendent, “a great guy,” but he snored.

Fremont, Ohio, where he was an assistant football coach, was a one-year stop for the Shipes. Phil wanted the chance to be a head football coach and when he heard the coaching job was open at Ada, he applied and was hired. In Fremont, he had met the brother of the superintendent whose bed he had shared in Ai. After he told Clinton Roberson that the principal’s job in Ada was open, the Robersons’ and Shipes’ belongings came to Ada in the same moving van. The Roberson Boys, Randall and Arden, were part of the exodus from Fremont. Later, Arden “Stretch” became the ONU football coach.

For Shipe, Ada was like homecoming. When he was an ONU athlete, he and his roommate, Hadley Watts, had formed a sports club for some Ada grade school boys who hung around outside their fraternity house. Now, Shipe was the football coach and some of those boys had grown up and were part of his high school team. He calls the Ada experience, “another good three years with a great group of young people.”

It was at Ada that Shipe recalls, “I first talked my way out of having a study hall.” Mr. Floyd, the superintendent, let him start an art class instead. When he coached at Defiance, he started another art class and avoided another study hall. He thinks that at both schools, it was the first art department they had.

After earning a master’s degree and most of a doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania, serving for two years on Navy ammunition ships in World War II, and returning for another three years at Defiance high school, he went to the College of Wooster as a coach in 1949. Shipe says most of his football players were in college because of the “G.I. Bill” and many of them, he says “had more combat experience than I had.” It was “like moving into the pros.”

The Wooster experience lasted for 30 years, as head football coach for 17 years, wrestling coach for 25, golf coach, teacher of physical education and a teacher in the freshman colloquium program. He retired in 1979. For Shipe, it was another great period in his life “spent with some fine people.”

When Shipe retired from the College of Wooster, some of the athletes he had on his teams in 25 years as wrestling coach started a collection for a fund they named “The Phil Shipe Go-To-Sea Fund.” Now for 12 summers, Phil and his wife, Pem, often accompanied by some of those fine people in their past, have gone to sea off the coast of Maine on a windjammer. The week of wind and sea are a time of adventure and reflection. The rest of the time Phil paints. On an earlier trip in 1967 to the east coast, that draws him to old ships and the sea, Phil encountered another influence on his life.

In 1966, he read a book review of “The Ringing of Bells,” by Eric Sloane, noted American painter, writer, and philosopher. Sloane advocated the ringing of bells on the Fourth of July instead of fireworks, believing that vibrations from bells were more positive than the sound of gun powder. He noted the use of bells in America since the ringing of the Liberty Bell and had convinced Congress to sign a proclamation asking people across America to ring bells at the same hour on the Fourth.

In 1967, the Shipes were in Mystic seaport on the Fourth of July when the bells rang. It reminded Phil of Eric Sloane, and he called him at his home. Sloane’s invitation to visit his barn studio was the beginning of a friendship that lasted until Sloane’s death in 1985.

Shipe says that Sloane not only gave him guidance for his art but “for general living.” Sharing Sloanes’ philosophy about art, he often paints ships, barns, and old churches from the American past, not to evoke a feeling of nostalgia, but to recreate an awareness of the spirit of that past.

His art studio, added to the house where he and Pem live in Wooster, reflects his interests all things connected with the sea and the ships; walls covered with paintings; tubes of paint and brushes; canvas and the barn siding he often uses instead of canvas. If anyone asks, he says he’s a painter. He tells everyone, “I don’t want to insult the art department by calling myself an artist.”

Shipe likes to paint what people ask him to paint. Even though he works quickly, sometimes the commissions pile up in the studio.

Sales from some of his dog and cat paintings have benefited humane societies. For the past number of years, he’s donated a painting for the Christmas cards sold as a fund raiser for the Wayne County hospice organization.

Hospice is a support group that allows terminally ill people to spend their remaining days at home surrounded by families and friends. Shipe has a great respect for this group. He says, “These people and their loved ones are facing one of the great mysteries, death, and they need our help.”

Shipe has received many awards in his years of teaching and coaching. He was given a place of honor in the ONU athletic Hall of Fame in 1976, and his paintings were given a show in the Elzay Art Gallery during Alumni Weekend in 1985.

Perhaps the most satisfying memories when he looks back over the years include some of “those fine people” he has met. Those people form an army of Phil Shipe fans, who with respect and affection, remember his influence on their lives.