Obituary: Eugene Holmes Shaffer Jr. / Teacher and WQED's 'Mr. Science'
May 12, 1926 - Aug. 7, 2010
August 12, 2010 4:00 AM
By Sally Kalson Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Eugene Holmes Shaffer Jr., a lifelong educator and administrator once known as "Mr. Science" to thousands of TV-watching students in the Pittsburgh area, died Aug. 7 of cancer in St. Clair Hospital. He was 84.
Mr. Shaffer was the first male elementary school teacher in the Mt. Lebanon School District, said Esther Shaffer, his wife of 57 years. In 1949, at 23, he started out as a teaching "cadet" at Lincoln School, then he moved to the sixth grade at Jefferson School three years later.
In the summer of 1959, he learned that the educational TV station WQED was looking for a science teacher whose lessons would be broadcast live into elementary and junior high school classrooms. The show would be underwritten by the Ford Foundation.
"I entered a contest where WQED invited 12 young male science teachers to come to the studio and teach a 15-minute lesson on oxygen," Mr. Shaffer wrote in a letter to his granddaughter. "These were filmed on 16mm film. I was chosen."
The new job doubled his salary that year, to $12,400, and provided a secretary and a lab assistant. The shows were shot in the Oakland studios of WQED.
Mr. Shaffer referred to himself at "Mr. Science" on the air. He taught fifth- and sixth-grade science every Tuesday morning; three afternoons a week, he taught eighth- and ninth-graders. According to his letter, his lessons were 23 minutes each and went into 2,100 classroom in Western Pennsylvania.
"He did all kinds of experiments," said his daughter, Sue Caspari of Swarthmore, Pa. He fired up the Bunsen burner to concoct potions, created chemical reactions in test tubes and beakers, filled balloons with helium and breathed in the gas to talk in a high, squeaky voice.
Once, his lab assistant, Preston Ginsburg, used time-lapse photography to show the hatching of a chick. That tape was watched repeatedly at the station before air time, but the last viewer forgot to rewind so the aired segment depicted a reverse process, with the baby chick going back into its shell. Mr. Shaffer arranged for Fred Rogers to show the segment that afternoon in its correct order. He also brought in guest lecturers from PPG, Gulf Oil, Bell Telephone and U.S. Steel.
The live show allowed the crew to play tricks on him, such as tying his shoelaces together out of the camera's range -- twice. He let the first one pass, but the second time he complained, and the guilty party was fired. After that, he wrote to his granddaughter, he gained a new level of respect.
He received up to 25 letters a week, mostly from classroom teachers correcting his pronunciation and disputing his facts. "It didn't take long to stop reading my mail," he wrote.
After one year, the Ford funding ended, and Mr. Shaffer went back to the classroom, but his taped lessons were re-broadcast into schools for two more years. For a long time afterward, people would recognize his name, face or voice, but he'd have to tell them it was because he taught them science on TV.
Mr. Shaffer grew up in Brookline, attending Brookline Elementary and South Hills High School. He spent 1944 in the Navy's V-12 program at Ursinus College and received his bachelor's and master's degrees in education at the University of Pittsburgh.
In 1965, he joined the Mt. Lebanon School District's administration, launching its communications program and "The View," a newsletter that was the forerunner of Mt. Lebanon Magazine. He also created the logo that the district still uses. During those years, he was president of the Pennsylvania School Public Relations Association.
Following his 1981 retirement, he became superintendent of operations for the United Methodist Home (Asbury Heights), retiring again in 1986.
He served as deacon and elder at Southminster Presbyterian Church, and he volunteered with his wife as camp manager at the church's retreat, Windy Ridge, in Greene County.
In addition to his wife and daughter, he is survived by two other daughters, Sally Johnson of Ingomar and Jill Williams of Phoenixville, and five grandchildren.
A celebration of his life will be held Saturday at 2 p.m. in Southminster Church, 799 Washington Road, Pittsburgh. Donations can be made to the church or the American Cancer Society.