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Local Legend Ocala Theater Teacher Retires

07/01/2021 01:12 AM By Lisa Anderson
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Janet Shelley
Janet Shelley
Story by Lisa Anderson

Local Legend

West Port High School Theater Teacher Retires After 33-Year Career

“All my life, people told me I should be a teacher, and I completely turned that idea away. No. Way. Could I ever be a teacher,” Janet says emphatically.

Janet Shelley has a personality that extends far beyond her small stature. She’s as animated as one would expect in a person who has spent her life in the theater. Her voice is intoxicating, and her stories demand that you stay and listen to more.

Ask her what her favorite moments were during her 23-year teaching career, and she’ll tell you, “It’s hard to pinpoint just one. With teaching, everything comes in waves. You get a new batch of kids every year. You have them for four years, and then, they graduate. You always feel like you’re starting over, you know? Because they come in fresh, and they don’t know a whole lot, and you have to build them up. Then, you lose them!”
Janet Shelley
Photo submitted by Janet Shelley (with her husband)

From Boston to Ocala

Janet grew up in the Boston, Massachusetts area and attended Emerson College for two years. At the start of her junior year, she auditioned for and was accepted into the Bachelors of Fine Arts program at New York University (NYU). The school had been looking specifically for transfer students, and Janet ticked all the boxes.

While at NYU, she met her husband of nearly 45 years, through a mutual friend. She graduated in the spring of 1977 and married Jim Shelley in the fall. The Shelleys were both in love with theater and remained in New York, but shortly after her marriage, Janet’s parents moved to Ocala. “My dad retired right after I got married. He sold his business, and they had bought a house in Ocala the year before.”

Janet and Jim would frequently fly down to spend time with her parents. They would always have a great time, but leaving wasn’t easy. “I’d cry on the plane all the way home,” Janet recalls. “I was really close to my parents, and I hated being that far away.”

In New York, she was involved in a lot of off-off Broadway shows. She worked in Greenwich Village and took all sorts of jobs, including performing, stage managing, and assistant stage managing. She acted quite a bit in student films, as well. The first show that she directed outside of college was at the Royal Court Repertory Theatre, which was fully produced by her boss from the full-time job she worked at the time.

The Shelleys eventually tired of New York living and moved to Ocala in 1984.

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Published August 1, 2021
Janet Shelley
Janet Shelley
Story & Photo by Lisa Anderson

Hitting the Road

The Conclusion of Janet's Story

Teaching isn’t always easy. “We have these days where you think, ‘Oh my gosh, why am I doing this? This so difficult.’ But I’ll tell you what, there are so many awesome moments that you don’t even think about. Like, you don’t even know how you’re reaching kids, until, sometimes, years later,” Janet muses.

“They had a surprise for me at our International Thespian Society ceremony. I was blown away. It was all of these kids that had graduated. They did Shakespearean soliloquies—little bits and pieces of Shakespeare that they edited together. They did a book for me, [too], Things that Janet Shelley Taught Me. Some of the things are hysterical,” she laughs heartily.

The Legacy of Theater

The graduates of Janet’s theater program have a multitude of jobs and careers. While some pursued theater, others chose different paths, but in the book they gave to Janet, they all talk about what theater did for them. “Like, how they have more faith in their ability to communicate, or they learned how to problem-solve. They learned how to be a part of a team. That’s what I love,” she says with fervor. “It’s not necessarily that they’re making a million bucks, but that they have used what they learned in a theater classroom in a variety of jobs and careers. And that’s what people need to know.

“People think, ‘Oh, theater is fun, and it’s fluff.’ No! It’s not! It’s hard work. It can be really stressful! You should see some of these kids, sometimes. They are in it, and they put their whole heart and soul into it. And then, when it’s over, they say, ‘I did this. I made this, and we did this together.’ The collaboration and the camaraderie that they develop is just wonderful to see.”

Retirement

Janet fractured three vertebrae in 2017 that put her out of school for three months, and she began to think about retirement. It wasn’t until 2019, however, that she and Jim named 2021 as their year for retirement, because she had been deeply affected by the passing of her friend and OCT landmark, Mary Britt.  Janet knew it was time to stop working and go enjoy life with her husband, children, and granddaughter.

Kiara Feliciano, a West Port alumnus, is taking over where Janet left off. She has some big shoes to fill, but as she is Janet’s former student and had shadowed her since 2019, Janet has every confidence in her. “I had great peace about leaving,” she states.

Don’t expect to catch Janet and Jim bumming around the Downtown Square. They are packing up, selling their home, and traveling the country in their RV. If they do decide to set down roots again, the couple are currently looking at Georgia.

We may be losing Janet to the open road, but for 37 years, Ocala was a better place because of her.

Thank you for your service. We’ll miss you and the fire you ignited in this community.
Read the August 2021 Issue Online