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Shirley Showalter ’70 shares steps in her journey from conservative Mennonite upbringing to college president

Author Shirley Showalter

Shirley Showalter is named for the iconic curly-haired child star, but, as a youngster, she wasn’t allowed to watch Ms. Temple’s performances.

“I think it might have been on Youtube that I first saw `On the Good Ship Lollipop,’ ” Showalter admitted from the comfort of her Harrisonburg home last week, letting out an infectious chuckle.

With an easy smile and a certain strength in eloquence, Showalter is a woman who seems comfortable in her own skin.

Her mother wanted a Shirley Temple doll since she was very young and had always hoped for a sister, so when she became pregnant with Showalter, it only seemed natural to call her “Shirley.”

“I became both the doll she never had and the sister she always wanted,” Showalter said.

Now 65, Showalter grew up in a “plain” Mennonite community in Lancaster, Pa. – an upbringing that restricted her from what she calls the “glittery things of the world.”

Her first book, which was released Sept. 19, explains the first portion of the headpiece-wearing Mennonite girl’s journey from the family farm to becoming a college president and foundation executive.

Although Showalter has made strides over the years, the rosy-cheeked portrait of her younger self on the cover of “Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World,” looks very familiar.

But that’s the point: Showalter’s message is not to run from “blush” – which she describes as the questioning naivety she developed in her uncomfortable position between the church and the world – but to embrace it.

“When we learn to embrace our blush and let go of our ego and not fight those things … but rather relax into them, then we can learn and grow and come home to ourselves,” she said.

The past as a child in Lancaster

If there’s a spectrum of religious stringency, Showalter grew up living somewhere along the middle of it.

She didn’t have to wear ankle-length dresses over black stockings, but her skirts couldn’t be too short, and jeans were absolutely out of the question.

Her hair had to be long enough to pin into a neat bun on the back of her head and then covered, although that gauzy headpiece wasn’t as conservative – read: large – as some of the ones spotted in local areas, such as Dayton, today.

“Until I went to bed that night, I [would] wear that all day long,” she explained.

She could listen to the radio at home, but she was forbidden from watching television. Dancing also fell into the forbidden category, as well as movies, although she did go with her parents to see “The Sound of Music” when she was 16.

“I happened to have been born at the edge of a great transformation that was taking place in the Lancaster Conference church, and these requirements … all have changed,” she added. “I wore a covering to public high school and my sister – who’s seven years younger – did not.”

Showalter was the first in her family in another regard. When she decided to attend then-Eastern Mennonite College, she was the first person to pursue higher education on both sides of her family, which have been in America for 10 generations.

Some of the reasoning behind that lies in the nature of the Mennonite culture in which she was raised, the near certainty that boys would become farmers and that girls would head straight for marriage, Showalter explained.”But there was also question marks and suspicion,” she said. “Would college alienate a young person from the church, from their family?”

Despite some skepticism, her parents didn’t stand in her way and quietly encouraged her in the form of financial aid and transport to and from Harrisonburg.

That’s where the book ends, but Showalter’s real story was only just beginning.

“I’ve left the book at a point where it could be picked up again, but I haven’t made any decisions yet about the next stage,” she said.

The past in the larger world

A sequel to “Blush” would likely include the story of Showalter’s journey to Goshen College in Goshen, Ind., where she became the first female president of the institution.

The story goes like this: After majoring in English at what is now Eastern Mennonite University, Showalter taught at Harrisonburg High School from 1970-72.

She then moved to pursue her master’s degree at the University of Texas at Austin, along with her husband, Stuart, whom she met at her alma mater.

After emerging from Austin in 1980 with a PhD in American Civilization, Showalter taught English at Goshen College for several years. In 1996, she was named the 14th president of the college. Eight years later, she moved to Kalamazoo, Mich., to join the Fetzer Institute as the vice president of programs.

Showalter, who still considers herself a Mennonite, is now a full-time writer and blogger who also teaches an honors course about writing memoirs – a process she’s now intimately familiar with – at none other than EMU.

The future

On Sept. 19, Showalter started a three-week-long book tour at Lititz Mennonite Church in Lititz, Pa.

At 7 p.m., Sept. 25, at EMU’s Martin Chapel, she will perform with local actor Ted Swartz. The event will be a book launch for Showalter and a book re-launch for Swartz, whose memoir, “Laughter is Sacred Space,” has gained a new cover.

The following afternoon, at 3:30 p.m., Sept. 26, Showalter will perform a short reading of “Blush” in an event sponsored by EMU’s Language and Literature Department. It will be held at the university’s Campus Center.

Showalter will then head to Archbold, Ohio, then to Goshen and Kalamazoo for book signings.

“It’s actually like having eight weddings in five states over three weeks,” she joked.

If nothing else, she wants her readers to take home this message: “I learned that being naive was a great gift,” she said. “For a long time, I kind of fought it. … I feared my naivete, but I learned that it was actually a great gift. It meant that I was always starting over. I was always in beginner’s mind, and [that's] a wonderful place to be.

“It’s a great learning place, and so what I thought was an obstacle sometimes growing up actually turned out to be a great gift.”

Article courtesy Daily News Record, Sept. 21, 2013, with minor edits by EMU’s editors.

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