By Clark Fair
Had Boyd Shaffer been less dedicated to or enthusiastic about teaching, his early experience as an itinerant art instructor for Kenai Peninsula Community College might have defeated him.
During the fall of 1966, the 41-year-old Shaffer, a Forest Service foreman, would turn loose his crew at 5 p.m., rush to his Moose Pass home to shower, and then drive his Jeep 30 miles to Seward to teach a 6:30 class. The next day, he would drive 75 miles to Kenai to teach another class at 7 p.m. When his students left, sometimes as late as 10 p.m., he’d make the long, dark drive home to get enough sleep to power him through another day.
Shaffer certainly didn’t stick with this part-time college gig because he wanted to get rich. At first, in fact, he was paid nothing for his teaching and received no compensation for his commute, which he did regardless of weather.
“The whole thing was on my dime,” he said.
And he never canceled a class.
When the college opened its campus near Soldotna in 1972, KPCC Director Clayton Brockel asked Shaffer to move closer to the school so he could teach full time and during the day. Shaffer promptly gave his two-week notice to the Forest Service and moved west.
Shaffer, who will be 88 in October, excelled at art and was curious about nature at an early age. He was raised in Salt Lake City by, “People of the earth, people who knew what they needed to survive,” he said, and they germinated in him the interests that would buoy him throughout his life.
“I started to find as I grew up that there were too many things I didn’t know,” he said. “So I started reading books — about every living thing, about every kind of animal. I was as interested in, say, tigers in Bengal as anything else.”
Also, said Shaffer, “I was a taster. I tasted everything. I was eating all my mother’s nasturtiums before I even knew they were edible. … I could live off the land (in Utah) when I was 16 years old.”
Before he was in his teens, Shaffer began applying his burgeoning art skills to his love of nature. He sketched what he observed. He examined structures and painstakingly recorded them on paper. He pulled apart plants and drew their contents. And with the help of neighborhood specialists, he also learned the arts of taxidermy and falconry.
“By the time I was 12 years old,” he said, “I knew every bird in Utah by sight and was a member of the Utah Audubon Society.”
As a teenager, he led tours for the world-famous Tracy Aviary, home to 25,000 birds, and in his late 20s was hired by the Walt Disney production company to be its naturalist consultant.
When the United States involvement in World War II swept him away from his familiar environs, he found himself in the European Theater. In the Battle of the Bulge, he was shot in the leg and hospitalized in Paris. After the war, the Army afforded him the opportunity to attend art school, where he learned some of the techniques that would later make him a financially successful painter.
During an Alaska vacation in 1958, he saw Moose Pass for the first time and knew he had found his new home. With winter approaching in 1960, Shaffer — a direct descendant of Mormon founders Joseph Smith and Brigham Young — moved his family and opened Moose Pass Taxidermy to keep food on the table.
Shortly thereafter, he gained employment with the Forest Service. In 1966, Brockel rang him up and offered him an opportunity that at first he was reluctant to accept.
“He asked me if I’d be interested in teaching at the community college,” Shaffer recalled. “I told him, ‘No, I’m just too busy.’ And about two days later he calls again and says, ‘We sure wish you would think about this.’ I said, ‘What triggered this?’ He said, ‘That art show you entered with that painting that took Best of Show and First, and I’m bugged by people wanting you to come over and teach art.’”
Brockel was referring to Shaffer’s award-winning still life at an art show at the Soldotna Public Library, and his mention of potential students seeking Shaffer’s expertise did the trick.
“OK, I’ll do it,” Shaffer told him.
Over his many years at the college, Shaffer taught a variety of art and naturalist studies classes. After he helped establish the school’s nature trails, he frequently led groups of students through the woods in search of plants, birds, mammals, insects and fungi. In his popular art classes, he developed a loyal following by teaching students how to paint birds, mushrooms and classic Alaska landscapes. He also promoted the college and his naturalist philosophies by touring local schools, often with live specimens in tow.
For a while, as he worked to educate the community about its environment, Shaffer toured the schools with a tamed great horned owl. In May 1975, a newspaper article featured Shaffer with his owl.
“I have found that if people have a positive experience with something when they are young,” Shaffer said in the article, “they develop a much different attitude about these (things) when they encounter them later in life.”
Eventually, Shaffer’s nature trails were named in his honor, and in 2002, retiring KPC director Ginger Steffy made sure that Shaffer’s large volume on local plant life, “The Flora of Southcentral Alaska,” was published in full color.
“Boyd Shaffer and his activities provided an outreach to those individuals, from grade-school students to senior citizens, who were lifelong learners,” Steffy said. “His courses, which covered a wide range of topics over the years, were interesting and informative without being intimidating. His willingness to share his knowledge and enthusiasm presented a positive and welcoming image of KPC to the community.”
For Shaffer, who retired in 2002 as one of the college’s longest-tenured instructors, there was never any doubt that he’d made the right move in leaving the Forest Service for the college.
“I teach because I thoroughly enjoy teaching,” he once said. “If I retired tomorrow, I think I’d see if I could get a job teaching at the college.”