'His level of silliness was pretty darn good,' says Paul Rudd's former teacher at Shawnee Mission West
The Sally Shipley shout-outs have come consistently in the more than two decades since two Shawnee Mission West alums made it big in Hollywood.
Actor Paul Rudd has praised his former forensics and speech teacher to multiple interviewers since he graduated in 1987 and found success in movies such as "Clueless," "Anchorman," "This Is 40" and the "Ant-Man" franchise.
Just last year, Jason Sudeikis, a ‘94 West grad who got his big break on "Saturday Night Live," dropped her name on the "Today" show while promoting his role in the Broadway version of "Dead Poets Society."
"I had a great high school teacher named Sally Shipley," Sudeikis told then-host Matt Lauer when asked who had inspired him.
Rudd and Sudeikis — who return this week to Kansas City to host their annual Big Slick Celebrity Weekend to benefit Children's Mercy hospital — may be two of the more recognized former students of Shipley’s.
But they are among a legion of West students who discovered a calling in Shipley’s classroom and found success before and after graduation.
Former student Roger Nolan appeared in dozens of television shows, including "The Wonder Years, "Seinfeld" and "L.A. Law" in the 1980s and 1990s.
Gary Wallace beat Oprah Winfrey at a high school forensics national tournament in 1970.
Hundreds of journalists, teachers and entrepreneurs, both near and far, cite her as an inspiration and remember her inclusive and encouraging style of teaching speech, forensics and radio/television for 31 years.
They remember the one year she started her class with the go-to "You’ll probably want to hear this …," a statement meant to quiet students.
They remember "The Tardy Song," a performance required of anyone late to her class.
In some classes, she would have every student participate in a prompt — What is the first song you remember? What is your middle name — and command that all students give their full attention to each speaker.
When some students would tell her they were afraid to address the class, Shipley would turn to them and say, "But you already have."
At West, Sudeikis was consumed with playing basketball until Shipley showed him another option — performing, said his father, Dan Sudeikis. "She saw things in students and could recognize certain talents in individuals that others could not.”
'She related to all of them'
Shipley grew up on her family’s farm in Culver, Kan. A studious child with thick glasses, she often could be found reading a book in the pasture with her puppies while her beloved sister, Pat, cooked with their mother.
By the time she reached high school, Shipley’s family had moved to nearby Salina, and the small world she had known as a child expanded quickly.
She had been curious about acting ever since her sister’s boyfriend had taken her to a production of "Our Town" when she was a child.
“I was so enthralled,” Shipley says. “I knew this is what I wanted to do.”
But it was her sophomore English teacher, Jack Kelly — also the school’s drama teacher — who got her involved in performance.
In high school, she took drama and joined a singing group. She attended Marymount College in Salina on scholarship and met the woman who would inspire her commitment to speech, even though she expected to hate the class.
Sister Michael Ann McKenna was kind and energetic, and Shipley decided she wanted to be like her. Shipley minored in English and became a drama major — her favorite role was the maid in Molière’s "Tartuffe."
She said it was quickly her plan to teach and perhaps do community theater on the side. But soon after graduation, Shipley experienced a series of what she calls "interventions" from those who set her on a path that sometimes felt predestined.
She took her first job teaching English and drama in the small town of Glen Elder, where she says strong mentors honed her confidence. After three years, it was her future husband, Walt — the best friend of Shipley’s brother-in-law — who encouraged her to move to Kansas City.
Shipley had already accepted a position at Shawnee Mission West when she received a letter from a West staffer congratulating her on her job as speech teacher. Shipley thought she would be teaching English.
She was sick with worry until the staffer handed her a file of old lesson plans. Soon Shipley made the class her own.
“I thought, 'What am I going to offer these kids?'” Shipley said. “Then I realized I could give them a sense of community in a big school.”
She was instrumental, said retired West coach and teacher Gary Scott, in developing forensics and radio and television disciplines at the high school. And she quickly became a popular teacher for everyone — from shy, reserved students to outgoing jocks.
“She related to all of them,” Scott said. “She had a unique personality that could relate to anyone.”
Nolan, who is now a family and marriage therapist, said Shipley used to drive a red Ford Mustang, and students would break out into Wilson Pickett's "Mustang Sally" when she pulled into the parking lot.
Shipley allowed Nolan to perform a scene from Woody Allen's "What's New Pussycat" in forensics tournaments. Throughout the competitive season, judges took points away from Nolan because of adult content.
Then he took first place at the state tournament. Nolan said it was Shipley's belief in him — and that moment winning on stage — that made him feel acting was something he could pursue.
"I remember feeling numb as they announced it," said Nolan, who graduated in 1972. "I think that was the high I started chasing. ... That was the start."
'The personality and the charisma'
Rudd came to Shipley in the late '80s and was part of a competitive forensics team that placed in state and national tournaments. Shipley had already gotten her master’s degree at the University of Missouri-Kansas City with an emphasis in speech and won a Kansas Master Teacher Award through Emporia State University.
Rudd was a finalist his junior and senior years in humorous interpretation — he placed fifth in the nation his senior year. The West forensics team won state nine out of the 10 years before Shipley retired.
Rudd was a confident and creative performer, though he could be ornery, Shipley said, and sometimes mischievous. (Once, as a prank on a busy tournament day when he was a senior, he stacked all the desks from her large classroom into a small office.)
“I remember thinking it was the first time I got to focus on doing things I loved and might want to make a career of,” Rudd said of those classes in an interview with the Shawnee Mission West Epic newspaper in 2012. “She encouraged acting silly and doing what you loved and she never spoke down to us.”
Shipley recalls a moment she realized Rudd had star power. It was a national forensics tournament, and a gang of people had started following his appearances. By his final performances, he had a cheering section.
It was a quality she also saw in Sudeikis, who brought energy and focus to team tournaments.
“Both of them had the personality and the charisma,” Shipley said. “Kids wanted to be like them and be a part of what they were doing.”
Sudekis was one of many jocks who found a different passion in Shipley’s classes. He had transferred from Rockhurst High School as a junior and played point guard for the Vikings basketball team.
His father recalls running into his son on the stairs early one Saturday morning, dressed in a suit and tie.
Dan Sudeikis was shocked to learn that his basketball-loving son had been participating in forensics activities for weeks. It was a passion he would explore more under Shipley’s direction, one that would influence his decision to pursue comedy after he stopped playing basketball for Fort Scott Community College.
“She promoted something within him, and he really took off with it," Dan Sudeikis said. "I think he saw another option.”
Sudeikis was a bright kid, capable of turning in the best work in the class, both Scott and Shipley said, if he deemed the project worthy of his time. Shipley said she and a basketball coach used to meet in the hallways.
“Will he be eligible this week?” they’d ask each other.
But when he did turn in his assignments, Shipley said, they were better than those of all the other students. She came to rely on him in forensics tournaments.
“I remember Jason’s energy,” Shipley said. “No matter where he was on the team, you could count on him.”
Sudeikis was part of the team that won West a state tournament during Shipley's last year in the district. It was in the years that followed — when she helped her husband run a golf center — that she watched her former students grow in fame.
She joined Rudd’s mother, Gloria, and other former and current students to watch Rudd's big film debut, "Clueless," and cheered when he came on screen.
She’s particularly fond of his performance in "The Cider House Rules," and though she tries to keep up, she has yet to see his biggest movie yet, "Ant-Man."
She's still fond of Sudeikis' work on "SNL," though she says both men's dramatic performances are "terrific" and that they both could win an Oscar.
But she said her heart just swelled when she saw them together in a 2013 “What Up With That” skit on "Saturday Night Live."
Once at a bookstore, she bought a lifesize promotional cardboard cutout of Rudd — he’s dancing with Jennifer Aniston in the movie "The Object of My Affection."
She didn’t want to drag it out in public to have it signed. She thought about giving it to his good friend Jeff Rose, who still lives in the area.
Even though she has continued to see Rudd through the years — at Rose’s wedding, at Rudd’s 30th high school reunion last year, at several Big Slick events — it remains in her home.
She always meant to get Rudd to sign it. But each time she sees him, when they fall so easily back into conversation, it slips her mind.
Big Slick Celebrity Weekend
Hometown hosts Paul Rudd, Jason Sudeikis, Rob Riggle, Eric Stonestreet and David Koechner are scheduled to host 37 famous guests June 1-2 to raise money for the Cancer Center at Children’s Mercy hospital. The public is invited to three big events:
▪ The celebrity softball game at 5 p.m. Friday at Kauffman Stadium. Anyone with a ticket to the Royals vs. Oakland Athletics game at 7:15 p.m. that night can come early to watch the celebrity game beforehand. If you purchase through royals.com/bigslick, $5 goes to the charity.
▪ The bowling tournament at Pinstripes in the Prairiefire shopping center in Overland Park on Saturday is sold out. But there's a free outdoor block party from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., which includes the celebrity red carpet arrival.
▪ The charity auction at 7 p.m. Saturday at the Arvest Bank Theatre at the Midland is sold out. But through Saturday, anyone can bid at bigslickkc.org on some auction items, including a Weird Al concert VIP package, the opportunity to hang out with Rich Eisen at NFL Network and tickets to see late-night hosts Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel and James Corden.
More information at bigslickkc.org.