Visiting Assistant Professor Leslie Shaw, who taught anthropology at the College since 1998, died unexpectedly on the evening of August 29 following complications from surgery. She was 57 years old.
Shaw will be remembered for her tremendous spirit, influential work, and role as a mentor, colleague, and friend.
“Leslie quietly set a high bar for service, excellence and collegiality, qualities that we each hope to achieve with some measure of grace but which she embraced with seeming ease,” Christle Collins Judd, dean for academic affairs, wrote in an email to the Orient.
Shaw demonstrated a clear passion for her work that was evident to students and colleagues alike. Professor Susan Kaplan, chair of the sociology and anthropology departments, said Shaw brought quiet, but palpable energy to the departments.
“She’d come into a room and she’d be a powerful presence,” Kaplan said. “Very quietly, not grandstanding.”
Shaw readily engaged students beyond the classroom, and frequently offered to host major-minor dinners and study-away nights.
Kaplan said that Shaw was often involved in more elements of campus life than was immediately apparent.
“Things would come up in casual conversation and suddenly you’d realize that she was organizing. She was organizing a field session to go down to Belize, she was organizing the Wabanaki festival,” Kaplan said.
Shaw’s colleague Scott MacEachern, professor of anthropology, wrote of a fond memory of collaborating with Shaw on the College’s memorial page in her honor.
Shaw once joined anthropology professor Scott MacEachern and his students on an excavation at the Chamberlain property he was working on for one of his classes.
“She essentially co-taught that course, she became so involved, and my students loved working with her,” MacEachern wrote. “She was a wonderful colleague and a great friend.”
In addition to her teaching and research, Shaw was a mentor to Bowdoin students of Native American heritage and an advocate on behalf of the Wabanaki tribe of Maine, dedicated to her role as the adviser to the Native American Students Association (NASA) at Bowdoin.
“She was the real backbone of the organization,” said Destiny Guerrero ’14, president of the NASA.
“She was a gentle but firm person. When she spoke people listened to her because we knew what she would say was helpful,” said Guerrero.
Jessie Kohn ’13 remembered coming to Bowdoin as a freshman and working closely with Shaw in the NASA. “You could feel the warmth and acceptance radiating off her,” she said. “She was very good at sitting and listening to just about anything you had to say and offering her support.”
“Bowdoin was extremely lucky to have a professor that really cared as much as Leslie did,” Kohn added.
Kaplan agreed that Shaw became a friend and mentor to those students who had the fortune of knowing her.
“She became a really important mentor to the Native American students who are organized around NASA,” Kaplan said. “She was very, very, very dedicated to mentoring students.”
Shaw’s close involvement with the Native American community in Maine left a profound impact. She was named Bowdoin’s Liaison for Native American Affairs, and she spearheaded a program for Bowdoin students to visit schools throughout Maine and encourage Native American students to go to college.
“Bowdoin, Bates and Colby started this initiative of outreach to Maine tribes,” Kaplan said. “She was the person who really triggered that.”
Kaplan said Shaw did not “preach to students that they should go to college,” but rather attempted to “show them some of the really interesting things that you do at college and the fact that you as a young person can do them.”
Shaw’s work took her across the world, from Easter Island to Belize. As a specialist on the Maya, she co-directed the Maax Na Archeology Project in Belize with her colleague Eleanor King from Howard University. Bowdoin students were given the opportunity to work alongside Shaw at the excavation site.
“She was taking them into the field and not just showing them what its like to be an archaeologist but letting them be archaeologists on her research project,” said Kaplan.
Shaw touched the lives of numerous people beyond the Bowdoin campus, many of whom are now posting on Shaw’s Facebook page and the Bowdoin memorial pages to Shaw.
“The network of people who knew her and really prized working with her is really tremendous,” said Kaplan.
Bowdoin professors are among those who have offered statements. Associate Professor of Anthropology Matthew Klingle wrote on Facebook, “Leslie was the real embodiment of a professor —someone who is a teacher, scholar, and activist because she could do nothing else.”
Professor Allen Wells reflected on the time Shaw presented her research to a seminar he taught last fall.
“It was one of those wonderful teaching moments, where a scholar-teacher with such evident passion for her work, engaged a group of students and faculty in an intimate three-hour conversation,” he wrote on Facebook.
Shaw is survived by her daughters Lauren and Audrey, and her husband John Cross ’76, secretary of development and college relations.