Running to a standstill

It’s impossible to imagine school meetings without Brian J. Shanahan rolling in 45 minutes late, with a booming voice announcing his arrival…

It’s impossible to imagine school meetings without Brian J. Shanahan rolling in 45 minutes late, with a booming voice announcing his arrival from down the hall.

“He had such an outsized presence,” said superintendent of schools David Sloan.

“He lived large, and he will leave a large hole in our lives.”

The Carcross school principal died of a heart attack during Christmas vacation in the Philippines.

Shanahan was 60 years old.

“He had such a zest for living, I think he probably crammed more living in 60 years than most of us could do in 120,” said friend Doug Rody.

Shanahan owned a Radio Shack store, worked as a miner at Cantung and did everything inbetween, said Mayo school principal Bruce MacGregor, remembering his former employee.

“He hadn’t really settled into any particular career, so when he found teaching, I think he found real meaning in his life.”

When Shanahan left Watson Lake and headed back to school for a teaching degree in his 40s, it stunned his friends.

“I think a lot of people were surprised Brian made that kind of change, because he was kind of a wild and crazy guy at that time,” said Sloan.

“But he was one of those people that got into the profession and he took to it like a duck to water.”

“We were all very surprised, because Brian just didn’t seem the teacher type,” said Carmen Komish, who’d known him since the early ‘70s.

“He was always a fun-loving guy and acted too much like a kid — you couldn’t imagine he was going to be looking after a bunch of kids.

“But as it turned out he was a superb and brilliant teacher because he always stayed young,” she said.

His wild youth gave him an edge, added Rody, who met Shanahan in Grade 3, in Elliot Lake, Ontario.

“There were three of us that hung around together and Brian was definitely the leader of the group,” he said.

“He was always coming up with the pranks that would get us into trouble.”

So when he became a teacher himself, “there weren’t any kids that could pull the wool over his eyes, that’s for sure, because whatever scheme they came up with, he’d already done it.”

There are plenty of good Shanahan stories “most of which we can’t repeat,” said Sloan with a laugh.

Most are unprintable, added Rody.

“He’s just one of those characters,” said Sloan.

“Brian would come into a room, or the building, and you’d know he was there from that big booming voice down the hall.

“And I think he did it more to get their goat, but he’d always refer to the secretaries as, ‘Oh, my dear, or my love’ — completely politically incorrect, and he knew it, but he did it just to get a rise from them, or mostly a laugh.

“I don’t think anyone could be mad at Brian.”

“He was certainly one of the most engaging and gregarious people you could ever meet — he could charm the spots off a leopard,” said Rody.

Born in Clonmel, Co. Tipperary, Ireland, Shanahan immigrated to Canada with his family when he was nine.

After living in almost every Canadian province and serving a brief stint with the Royal Canadian Air Force, Shanahan moved to the Yukon in 1965 and attended FH Collins.

But he dropped out in Grade 10 and started working at United Keno Hills Mine.

He went on to live in Elsa, Calumet, Mayo, Watson Lake, Whitehorse, and finally Carcross. He also spent seven years in Tungsten, NWT, working as a mine millwright.

“Many years later I returned to school and worked like a mule and managed to obtain a bachelor of education degree,” wrote Shanahan on the Carcross school website.

“So believe me, if I can do it, anyone can do it!! Never, ever give up on your education!”

“I’ve rarely seen a person take to a profession as Brian did to education,” said Sloan.

“It was as if he suddenly discovered the thing he should have done all his life.”

When Shanahan became Carcross principal, he “ran with it — everything at that school had his stamp on it,” said Sloan.

Even the name of the school, Ghuch Tla, that was largely Brian’s doing, he said.

Ghuch Tla means wolf mother, and is longtime Carcross native teacher Lucy Wren’s traditional name.

“Brian wanted to honour her, and normally the government policy is you don’t name a school or a building after a person who is living, there’s all these formalities, but Brian wasn’t deterred by that,” said Sloan.

“He kept pressing and pressing until he got the school renamed.”

And when the school needed a paint job, Shanahan got creative.

Most principals would settle on whatever colour was picked by property management, said Sloan.

Not Brian.

A colourful mural graces the front of Carcross school.

“It’s like a scene, blue waves and mountains, kind of a semi-Harrison, with loons — I don’t know were he got the loons — but it’s very distinctive,” he said.

Then there’s CIKO 97.5 FM.

The only elementary school in North America with a CRTC-licensed radio station that broadcasts into the community and beyond, Shanahan put Carcross school on the map.

“The school was out of control and I needed something, a hook if you will, that would help channel the students’ energies and involve the community at the same time,” wrote Shanahan on the school’s website.

“I came up with the idea of trying to start a local radio station, which I felt would address both of these important needs.”

Some 70 students, teachers and community members participate in operating, creating and planning shows to go on air, and the community uses the station for public announcements, native language instruction, daily news, weather and sports reports and radio bingo.

“He tried to involve everyone in education,” said Yukon Teacher’s Association president Jim Tredger.

“He worked from his heart.”

The Carcross school is also a Network of Innovative Schools member, which came with a $30,000 award.

Shanahan won numerous awards for technology and brought a lot of money to the school, said Sloan.

But technology was not Shanahan’s only focus.

The school has a state-of-the-art climbing wall, a fully equipped darkroom, and a pottery program, as well as artifacts displayed in cases Shanahan had built to create a mini museum.

Even the curtains on the stage are unique, sporting a Tlingit motif.

“Most people would just buy standard curtains,” said Sloan.

But Shanahan ordered these specialty curtains.

“And his policy was, do it first, ask permission later,” he said.

So Shanahan had the curtains made, then discovered they weren’t flame retardant.

“So an enormous expense was incurred getting another set of curtains and having the Tlingit-motif curtains stitched on top,” sad Sloan with a laugh.

“He went into everything headstrong,” added Komish.

“He didn’t really think about all the outcomes, he was just so passionate about whatever he wanted to do.”

His antics earned him the nickname Brian Shenanigans, said Sloan.

And although the brogue was largely gone, Shanahan never lost his Irish roots.

He’d get together with Teslin school principal Richard Burke and do “the full Irish — raucous jokes and drinking too much,” said Sloan.

Longtime NDP member Ken Bolton remembers Rody, Shanahan and friends standing in “red square” at the High Country Inn on Friday afternoon whooping it up.

“But his gregarious nature overrode his political considerations,” said Bolton, mentioning Shanahan’s political dabbles in Watson Lake.

“He was always ready for an adventure or a laugh, never at a loss for words, and it didn’t matter your station in society, high or low, if you were Brian’s friend, you were Brian’s friend,” added Rody.

“I’m going to miss him.”

An avid ATV and snowmobile rider, Shanahan also had a boat he tinkered with in Carcross.

“The troubles with his boat are legendary,” said Rody with a chuckle.

“If anything could possibly go wrong with his boat, it would.”

“He never did anything in half measures, he went whole hog,” he added.

When Shanahan got into hunting, back in his Watson Lake days, “the next thing you know he had half a dozen horses,” said Rody.

In Carcross, dogs replaced the horses. Shanahan bred springer spaniels, and then golden retrievers.

But now just some of the old guys are left, said Komish, who used to be Shanahan’s vet.

Although he loved his job, his students and the community, Shanahan started thinking about a change last year after one of his best friends died, said MacGregor, who’d talked with him at a fall meeting.

“He was shook up because a good friend of his had just died of a heart attack and he said, ‘Boy, I sure don’t want that,’” he said.

That’s when Shanahan started to think about retirement.

“It made him realize while he really liked teaching and was dedicated to the kids and all that, there’s more,” said MacGregor.

After a two-week trip to the Philippines in the summer turned into eight, Shanahan considered buying a small hotel on the islands.

“I think the purposes of this last trip was to look closer at the potential to buy a hotel there,” said Rody.

“He figured it was time for a change.”

“The greatest shame is that Brian didn’t get to live out his dream, sitting on a Bhutan chair with a rum drink in his hand watching the waves roll out,” said Sloan.

Contact Genesee Keevil at