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Dec. 19, 2000 -- No. 648

Shumaker, inspiration for ‘Shoe,’ hero for aspiring, veteran reporters alike, dead at 77

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Veteran newspaperman and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill journalism professor James H. Shumaker, who inspired the popular comic strip "Shoe," died Tuesday (Dec. 19) at UNC Hospitals after a long battle with cancer. He was 77.

Shumaker – better known as "Shu" to thousands of friends, fellow journalists and professors, and former students – had been hospitalized since mid-November, when doctors found cancer in his brain, lungs, liver, shoulder blade and femur.

"Few men have impacted Chapel Hill with the force Jim Shumaker did in his editorial career," said UNC President Emeritus William C. Friday, now University Distinguished Professor at UNC-CH. "A superior journalist, a loving critic and a first-rate gentleman – these were his real qualities, and I am so grateful that I was his friend."

Shumaker, who taught journalism since 1973 at UNC-CH’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication, spent more than half a century working in print journalism as a reporter, editor and opinion writer. Aside from his decades of dedication to both print journalism and teaching, Shumaker was well known as the inspiration for the late Jeff MacNelly’s popular comic strip, "Shoe," which runs daily in more than 1,000 newspapers worldwide.

"Shu was a fixed star of love in everybody’s constellation," said Walter Spearman Journalism Professor Chuck Stone, Shumaker’s longtime UNC-CH colleague and close friend. "We delighted in his blue-eyed irreverence and marveled that he could sing by heart all four verses of ‘Amazing Grace.’ With curmudgeonly tenderness, Shu loved us back, and inspired us to keep on keepin’ on until we excelled."

"In my 76th year," Stone added, "I cherish a lovely tribute by a colleague below a picture of the two of us: ‘Separated at birth?’ In death, we temporarily are. But I am comforted, knowing that ‘Wherever the bright sun of heaven shall shine, his honor and the greatness of his name shall be’"

Born in Winston-Salem and raised in Durham, Shumaker joined the Air Force in 1941 and was a radio operator on a B-24 bomber during World War II. After his plane collided with another plane that had been hit by German gunfire, Shumaker parachuted from the wreckage and was taken prisoner of war for a year in Germany.

After the war, Shumaker entered UNC-CH on the G.I. Bill and in 1947 began his journalism career as a reporter for the Durham Herald, which kept him away from classes. Although he applied for his degree in 1948, he was told he had not taken a required freshman hygiene class.

Rather than take the course, Shumaker moved briefly to California and then enrolled at Columbia University in New York City. He later joined the Associated Press, first as a legislative reporter in Columbia, S.C., and then as an editor in Charlotte. In 1952, Shumaker returned to the Herald as state editor and served as managing editor from 1955 to 1959.

"Jim was a good friend and a good newspaperman – in the best sense of the word," said Clarence Whitefield, who grew up in Durham with Shumaker and worked with him at the Durham Herald. "He was hard-nosed when he needed to be but he had a first-rate sense of humor. But I think he finally found his niche as a professor – teaching was what satisfied him the most."

From 1959 to 1973 – except for a three-month stint at the Boca Raton News in Florida – Shumaker was the editor of the Chapel Hill Newspaper, then called the Chapel Hill Weekly. Under his guidance, The Weekly won more than 70 awards and was recognized as one of the finest newspapers of its size in the country.

It was also at The Weekly where Shumaker formed a friendship with a Carolina art student that would spark the creation of one of the world’s most popular comic strips. In the late 1960s, Jeff MacNelly, a three-time Pulitzer Prize winner who died last June of lymphoma, got his first professional job at The Weekly. Shumaker unwittingly became MacNelly’s inspiration for the main character in "Shoe" – P. Martin Shoemaker, the editor of the Treetops Tattler-Tribune who always had sneakers on his talons, a cigar in his beak and gruff sentiments in his comic-strip word balloons.

"Shumaker used to wear tennis shoes in the newsroom and smoke cigars," MacNelly once said. "Early on, he basically gave me the freedom to do whatever the hell I wanted to do. I used to walk in the newsroom, and he would say, ‘What are you going to do today?’ I would say, ‘I don’t know,’ and he would say, ‘Fine.’"

Shumaker taught part time at UNC-CH in 1972 and was awarded his bachelor’s degree the same year. He joined the faculty full time in 1973 but took a year off in 1979 to serve as the editorial page editor for The Wilmington Star News. He returned to UNC-CH in 1980 and became an associate professor in 1984.

"Shu had a rather unconventional way of inspiring his students – he never cared much for using a syllabus," said Dr. Richard R. Cole, dean of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication. "He turned them on to excellence in writing; he turned them on to excellence in journalism. He was like the head of a comet, with all those students he inspired dotting the sky behind him."

In such courses as newswriting, editorial writing and other classes, he taught thousands of students and mentored hundreds of journalists across the globe. His dedication to teaching brought him the Tanner Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching, the Favorite Faculty Award and a term professorship in his name.

"Jim Shumaker proved to me that it was okay for men to write," said novelist and former student Tim McLaurin. "He wrote beautifully and used his words to make sense of the world, to illuminate and rectify wrongs. On a paper of mine in his editorial class, he once wrote: ‘What you don't know about grammar, spelling, syntax and the like – and that is considerable – can be excused in the name of real writing talent.’ I could not have received a higher compliment, nor motivation. Since then, I have had seven books published."

While teaching, Shumaker – who won writing awards from the N.C. Press Association, Golden Quill and the National Newspaper Association – wrote a popular weekly column in the Charlotte Observer for more than 20 years. In 1989 he published the book "Shu," an anthology of those columns.

"Most important to Shu are the frailties and virtues of the common man, a simple life and a disdain for pomp, puffery and pretense," Roland Giduz, "Shu" collaborator and publisher, wrote in the book’s foreword.

"I think the book showed how much Jim had to give to others," said Giduz, a longtime friend of Shumaker’s. "He was a superb writer who really related to the spirit of what he called the Great Unwashed. I appreciate his friendship and what he did for ‘the craft,’ as he called it. Jim wrote wonderful editorials – once he told me that he couldn’t give a damn about letters of praise, but that he was always tickled by letters that criticized him – the more vitriolic, the better! He had this veneer of being quite gruff, but there was really nothing to that. He was a very caring person."

Shumaker is survived by his wife Doris, a prominent artist; nine children; four grandchildren and one great-grandson.

Funeral services will be held at Mount Hermon Baptist Church in Durham, and Clements Funeral Home will handle further arrangements. In lieu of flowers, the family requests that memorial contributions be made to Mount Hermon Baptist Church, 4511 Old N.C. 10, Durham, NC 27705.

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Contact: Mike McFarland, (919) 962-8593