LIFE TIME ACHIEVEMENT AWARD
MAJOR EUGENE SHEA
Eugene was born August 15, 1928 to Laurello G. Shea and Alice C. Sweeney Shea. He started his singing about the age of 5. His mother taught him how to sing "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling". He sang this song for years at clubs and VFW and LCBA meetings.
At the age of six Eugene caught the dreaded disease polio. His mother rubbed his legs with olive oil three times a day and Gene started to walk again. Gene was then enrolled in dancing school to take tap dancing and ballet to improve his legs. Gene took lessons from Gerry Metzler of Metzler's Dance Studio and became a great tap dancer. When he was 11 years old Metzer Dance Studio announced it would start baton classes. Betty Metzler would go by train to Chicago to take lessons from Major Smith on Saturday mornings and teach Saturday afternoons. During Gene's first lesson he learned how to do a flamb, figure eight and body pass. The following week when Betty Metzler came back from Chicago, Gene was doing more than she learned from her lesson. She told Gene that he would be the teacher from now on and wanted him to teach the opening act for the next recital. Gene opened the recital with thirteen children. After that he started teaching on his own. He began teaching at the Catholic Youth Center on the third floor. Baton twirling was the only thing he taught. The following year he had one hundred students. At that time students were charged thirty five cents a lesson.
At this point he started to branch out and taught in Waukegan, Wadsworth, Zion, Highland Park, Libertyville, Mundelie, Buffalo Grove, Vernon Hills, Barrington, Crystal Lake, Harvard, Sycamore, Sugar Grove, Ottawa, Dundee, Spring Hill, FL, Orlando FL, Holly FL, NY, WY, NE, TX, NO, IN, IO, OH, MI, WI, Ireland and Canada.
In Waukegan Township High School Gene was a band member playing all percussion instruments and was also a member of The Waukegan Municipal Band. He twirled at all the football and basketball games as well as being a cheerleader and manager of the varsity football team.
Gene taught his two sisters Alyce and Anne who were ten and fourteen years younger. This is when his mother decided to take them to a few contests. They went to several Chicago Lane Music Festivals in Waukegan and Rock Island where they met Don Sartell, who was the judge. Anne, at the age of three, was the youngest twirler at that time. Before this there were more male twirlers than female. After this Gene went to the first Milwaukee Jamboree and the Chicago Land Music Festival and met many people like Homer Lee, Maynard Vieler, Major Booth, Major Totilas, Merle Dieles, John Smetzler, George Walbrige Merle and Margaret Smith, Skrivans Family, Olie Hemirch. Roger Lee and many others. He had his first Corp with him, Shea's Strutters, who were overwhelmed. Gene remembers taking a picture at the slide in the park.
Gene started out his career very early by leading the rhythm band in Immaculate Conception Grade School in first grade at the Majestic Theatre in Waukegan, IL where Jack Benny would perform.
Around the age of twenty Gene started to teach dance as well as baton twirling. Alyce, his sister, would help him. Then Gene was drafted into the army for two years. His mother and sister kept the studio going for him while he served his country. During his time in the service he entertained at Ford Leonard Wood, MO and was introduced to Robert Metchium in Sheboygan, WI. He participated in the USO shows in Seattle, WA for two weeks before shipping off to Japan then South Korea where he was in the field artillery. He entertained the service men with Betty Huton, Francis Langford and Ann Miller. Betty Huton was the one person that went back to 90th Field Artillery with Gene. They were shelled on and had to leave in a hurry. Major Shea remembers five people getting killed that night. Gene had to pick up the pieces and put them in bags. He had guard duty that night. Over the mountains the enemy came and Gene recalls shooting his gun. He hoped he did not kill anyone. The next day he found out that he didn't. Between 1950 and 1951 all he could think about was to getting home and returning to his studio. Before leaving for the service Gene won the 1948 Cleveland, OH VFW National Boys Twirling Championship and 1949 St. Louis, MO VFW National Boys Twirling Championship. Gene returned to the USA and looked forward to continuing where he left off. After coming home from the service he won the Miami, FL National Boys Twirling Championship.
Gene bought a three car garage, which his grandmother helped him purchase. He used this to teach baton twirling, dancing and ballet with the help of his sisters. Then he and his sisters went on to teach clinics, camps and even started their own camp in Wadsworth, IL. They did many shows for different organizations and preformed regularly at the basketball and football games. The family was very busy running and attending twirling contests. They won many awards. Alyce won the World Championship and was on the Ed Sullivan and Dave Garaway Shows. She also won the St. Paul Winter Carnival one year. In addition to teaching baton twirling, Gene was working for his father who had a fleet of school buses. Gene convinced his father to buy a bus so he could take his students to contests. Gene was also taking college courses to become a school teacher. After going here and there to ten universities - to fit into his schedule, Gene became a school teacher. He taught for twenty five years. He was a baton twirling teacher for sixty years, a baton twirling judge for fifty years and has judged over five hundred contests.
Early when the Sheas would go to contests every one made up tricks from one contest to the next. These people invented the tricks and moderated them to their style. Eugene had his father make the first hoop and gave it to William Kraskin to see what he could do with it. Many others, like Jack Deveney, did the same. There were so many people inventing new tricks at that time that it's hard to say who invented what.
Another fond memory of Gene's was the fun time of meeting and having picnics and ballgames instead of going out in little groups to discuss twirling politics. Today Gene feels that all twirlers look pretty much the same, so if you want to win you have to follow the pattern almost like being cloned. Tricks that were invented have left but he hopes not forgotten.
When Gene was in the Miami, FL 1951 VFW convention he led The Ten Mile Parade. He also went to meet President Truman at the airport with the Kansas City, MO Drum and Bugle Corp. After this the All American Drum Corp made Gene head of the All American Twirling Association.
Some of the names of Mr. Shea's Corps were Shea's Strutters, Shea's Majorettes, Shea's Baton and Drum Corp. Gene taught some top notch twirlers like Alyce Shea Brownlee, Anne Shea, Carol Strack, Jim Hallett, Charlene Drost, Debbie Ferguson, Carol Marion, Lynette Jankowski, Tracy Jankowski and Wynola Cooper DeMarco and many others. Connie Brazelton, who starred in Don Sartells twirling movie, and is now in Emergency Room (ER), was a great strutter and twirler of Mr. Shea's.
Gene has worked at AYOP since it started and is director of the World Strut and Solo Contest. Some people think AYOP stands for American Youth On Parade, but Gene thinks it stands for All You Old People. Mr. Shea has received many honors in his day and has won many awards with his students. They won every team and dance team you could win at AYOP. Gene was has been named Corp Director of the Year and Teacher of the Year. He has also received honors from Don Sartell at AYOP for twirling achievement in advancing baton twirling. Gene has judged three National Championships. Gene had a Baton Twirling Corp from 1945-1972. Also, Gene was the first to start Show Production Corp. Remember the nuns at Notre Dame that brought the nuns from Notre Dame in to see the Sound of Music?
In 1969 AYOP was in Syracuse, NY and Shea's Baton Corp won the World Championship Military Corp Division and also the World Champonship Parade Corp Division. Major Totilas told Gene they had won on Wednesday and Gene kept it a secret until Saturday from everyone so as not to spoil the feelings of the children and parents. This, Gene admits, was the hardest thing he has ever done.
Gene was named MAJOR at AYOP by NBTA, which is an honor that he feels no one can take away. It took a lot of getting use to. Gene gives many thanks to Don Sartell. He likes to joke with Don Sartell about being one month his elder and deserving respect. Jack DeVeney is his elder but still calls him Father Shea, since he worked at the Catholic grade school and listens to confessions from Jack and takes Don to breakfast at the Catholic Church.
To Gene twirling is a way of life and a good way to teach children and parents what life is about. He reminds us to realize that judging is basically honest and some see things differently than others. Gene is one person that is honest as the day is long and will be respected in twirling history for this as well as working for all the twirlers. Remember, everyone has a history and everyone sees it different.