By Steve Bell, Ball Endowed Chair and Professor Emeritus in Telecommunications | Photo by Joe Krupa.
The Ball State University department of telecommunications is celebrating the life of one of its most colorful and beloved former faculty members. Jim Shasky, age 74, died in Los Angeles on February 24th 2018 with family and friends after losing a courageous battle with Parkinson’s disease.
The TCOM department almost lost the opportunity to hire Jim in 1997 after he applied for the Edmund F. and Virginia B. Ball Endowed Chair in Telecommunications. Get more information on this link. He didn’t get the Chair, but he finally agreed to take a beginning faculty position (with promises for the future) primarily so his wife Lee could pursue a PhD in Educational Psychology. After a successful career in finance she was committed to working with troubled boys.
Frankly, when Jim first arrived on campus some of our faculty and students were not so sure about him. He was gruff, profane and a bundle of creative energy looking for fellow travelers. But in the classroom, he could spark a level of enthusiasm and creativity that produced remarkable results from students who understood what a unique opportunity they were getting from a guy who had lived both the best and the worst of a business that is not for everyone.
Jim had street creds that gave him the attention of anyone aspiring to make their mark in the industry, from the edit room to the control room, from out in the field to putting an accurate, creative and often powerful story on the screen.
His resume ran like a smorgasbord of the telecommunications industry, from producing reports for “PM Magazine,” one of the original news magazine programs in the country, to directing the annual Jerry Lewis telethons for Muscular Dystrophy for more than a decade.
He directed coverage of the Nixon impeachment hearings and numerous other major events, both news and entertainment. He also worked for WNEW-TV in New York, the city’s largest independent television station, and for the CBS Television network. Eventually, he founded his own prize-winning video production company in Los Angeles with “Tron” writer Bonnie MacBird.
At Ball State Jim worked with student crews to produce two additional documentaries that won him major awards. But more important, he inspired the students, themselves, to do the exceptional. It wasn’t until Jim arrived that TCOM students began to win Regional Emmys and other awards of their own, in both the student and professional categories. And that was also when our department began winning “Indiana Broadcast School of the Year” awards.
But it was Jim the friend, the teacher, the colleague that so many of us treasured in such a special way. By his own admission, life had not been easy. When he was growing up in Minnesota no one knew about ADHD and other conditions that could make a child a mystery and a serious challenge.
When Jim was once asked what was the worst thing he had ever done as a kid in school, he confessed to trying to set a nun’s habit on fire and shutting her in a closet. Fortunately, the fire went out and the closet door had no lock.
Because of his stories, which he gladly shared, some of his students speculated on whether he even had a college degree. The truth is his high school grades were so awful he had to fudge them to get into Arizona State. But providence came to the rescue.
After making a wrong turn on the way to an early class he ended up in the control room of the campus TV station and couldn’t believe what he was seeing: all those monitors to view at the same time and make instant decisions! It was heaven for a hyper-active kid looking for a reason for being.
Despite all those early years filled with near misses, he now had major and a mission. He also had the gifts and the intelligence to graduate from Arizona State University and earn a Master’s Degree from Syracuse University.
Even coming here to Ball State had its challenges. When Jim and Lee arrived for a Muncie house search Jim declared that he wanted a place in the country, as far from the University as possible. But by the end of the day, Lee had made a down-payment on a lovely little home across the street from the University President’s residence on the edge of campus. In the years that followed, the house was often a safe haven for a student in need, or a (non-alcoholic) party site for all those who gladly took his guff to learn his off-the-street lessons and earn his affirmation.
For some, Jim was an acquired taste. But just to set the record straight, although he had his critics, he also knew how to impress the boss in the best sort of way. In fact, Jim became a favorite friend of both former BSU presidents John Worthen and Jo Ann Gora and they saw to it he had funding for special projects. He even did a feature video on President Worthen and his frequent walks with the family dog some thought walked him.
But for all the growls and grumps that came with the package, the one word that best defined Jim Shasky is “love.” Jim loved Lee and their ever changing family. In fact, they took in numerous troubled young boys as foster children over the years, even after retirement when they lived on a mountainside in Utah. Several they adopted.
Jim loved life, even with all the curves it threw. He loved the business and he loved his students and sharing his knowledge and life experiences with them.
As former student Matt Mays put it, “He loved being around us and you could feel it. He loved to show up on our sets and give us an enormous amount of crap… he had the attention span of a gnat, but was endlessly devoted to the people he cared about.”
As Jim often put it himself when looking back at his career, “I f___ing loved all of it.”A last phone call with a former Ball State colleague, even when he was sick and exhausted, said it all. His last words were, “I love you, too.” And despite all his crap… he could have said the same to so many of us who were blessed with his bigger-than-life presence.