Photo by Alison Shaw.
His education began in the anthracite regions of Pennsylvania, in small towns like Shepton and Port Carbon.
He had come to the smoky mining areas of the state as a young lad from Front Royal, Va., his birthplace, a small resort community nestled in the Blue Ridge mountains. His father was a successful auto mechanic after long military service in the army.
Rufus Burton Shorter was not to know in those early years that his first taste of schooling would lead to a lifetime in the field of education. He would later move away from the smaller communities for jobs in the vast New York school system, specifically in Brooklyn, first as a teacher and then as an administrator with varied and increasing responsibilities.
Last week Mr. Shorter was named the new superintendent of the Island’s schools. His nomination to head the Vineyard school system ended a nearly year-long search by the Union school committee.
At 56, Mr. Shorter is very enthusiastic about a new life on the Vineyard, and already he is thinking ahead to the opportunities and challenges he will meet when he arrives on the Island to assume his new duties July 1. “I was ready for a transition,” he told the Gazette during a conversation in his Brooklyn office where he serves as assistant superintendent for public personnel services.
Mr. Shorter is philosophic, open and modest about his role in the year ahead.
“I hope people will tell me their concerns. I’ve got a great many ideas of my own, but I don’t want to say I’m coming in with some kind of fantastic new program. I’m not.
“The first year will be one of doing a tremendous amount of looking into problems and issues that face the school system. I like to talk to people. I like to ask a lot of questions.
“I know the school committees and principals will be helpful. One of my biggest jobs will be to establish good relations with the school committees.
“I also hope to get some consensus about how to deal with the over-crowding at the high school.”
Mr. Shorter is a powerfully built, tall man - well over six feet. He is both articulate and thoughtful. He has a quick sense of humor which punctuates conversation with easy laughter. His manner is open and direct. His responses to questions are spare of excess rhetoric.
In New York, he had a reputation of being an extremely effective troubleshooter, a term he acknowledges but dislikes. A great many of his years in Brooklyn were spent working in areas of human relations, with parental groups, teacher recruitment programs, special problem areas and the educational needs of handicapped children. “I’m not a fancy guy,” he said. “In the first year I want to get a close look at how we all might go about meeting the needs of the kids. I want to make a real contribution.”
When asked why he was interested in moving from an enormous school system to the smaller Island framework, Mr. Shorter was once again philosophic.
“I grew up in a small town atmosphere, and there will be no culture shock for us in the move to the Vineyard.
“Aside from the joy of living on the Vineyard itself, the school system is small enough to be able to see what kind of an impact you are having in the community. Because it is small enough, there are opportunities for psychic reward.
“You are never sure what kind of an impact you are having in the big system.”
Of the family reaction to the new assignment, Mr. Shorter said: “I’m really looking forward to this. I’m thrilled. My wife, Vera, is delighted, and my two daughters are thrilled.”
His two daughters are Lynn, 28, who is a poet in danger of “starving to death,” according to her father, and Beth, 26, a successful dancer.
One of Mr. Shorter’s beliefs about education is that youngsters ought to be exposed to as many opportunities and experiences as possible both inside and outside the classroom. “Kids learn a heck of a lot outside the classroom,” he said.
He stressed that outside activities must be carefully planned in such areas as field trips and intern programs. But the main theme of Mr. Shorter’s repeated remarks was that he is coming to the Vineyard to listen and learn about what has been happening before making any decisions about new directions in the Island’s school system.
Mr. Shorter’s higher education was undertaken at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania where he graduated with majors in political science and history. He received his master’s degree from Columbia University in 1948.
Before beginning his teaching career in New York, Mr. Shorter served in the army in Georgia, North Africa and Italy from 1943 to 1946.
Mr. Shorter’s interests are not only of an educational nature. He is an avid tennis player and swimmer, a voracious reader and a devotee of classical music and jazz from the thirties, forties and fifties.
His first association with the Vineyard dates back to the early 1950s when he came to the Island from Cape Cod on a one-day visit. He returned several years later for a longer stay and found that he and his wife marveled at the beauty of the Vineyard.
Mr. and Mrs. Shorter began longer stays in 1970 and in 1972 bought a house in Oak Bluffs on the Edgartown road about a mile outside Vineyard Haven. They have been summer visitors since.
“I know we must love the Island because in recent years we don’t just come in-season. We come for all the holidays now - Christmas, Thanksgiving and every long weekend we can get.”