Missoulian Story, July 16, 2004
UM professor left his stamp on those around him
By DONNA SYVERTSON of the Missoulian
Wesley Shellen may have loved teaching at the University of Montana , but his hobby of collecting stamps kept him occupied in his retirement.
In fact, he had stamps piled up in three rooms of his house. He became so immersed in philately that he lectured postal clerks how to deal with philatelic mail, anything that was collectible. He owns one of the first free letters to come out of the Hellgate office; a letter from Christopher Higgins to a man selling his property in the Washington area. The letter told how sorry Higgins was that he couldn't come because of the Virginia City gold strikes. That letter had no stamp on it, explained Shellen's wife Debbie, because although the post service had an office, it had to ask someone to deliver the letter as a favor.
Shellen granted his own favors as he prepared to die. He was diagnosed with lung cancer in March 2000 and, while preparing for death, forgave several instances that had clouded his life. He died at his home July 6, 2004.
"He did death the right way," said his friend and faculty co-worker Bill Wilmot. "He forgave people he had had trouble with."
The family was surprised to learn that Wes wanted memorials sent to Camp Mak-A-Dream. They thought he would select the University of Montana or his stamp club. But then they remembered.
"It broke his heart to see the kids in the chemo center," said Debbie.
"... To see an 8-year-old child suffer ...," added his daughter, Chris.
Shellen worked at the University of Montana from 1967 to 2001, putting in 34 years as a professor in the department of communication studies. He served two terms as chair of the department and a year as acting chair of the linguistics program. He also served as chair of UM's Faculty Senate in the late 1970s.
"He always dressed up when he went to class," Debbie Shellen said. "He had a duty to the students; he wasn't pompous. He was humorous, too."
He was so well-liked that a new student-focused teaching and research facility was named after him: the Shellen Communications Lab.
His former students are scattered: a Canadian Mounted Policeman is one of his former students as is the wife of Montana 's Republican gubernatorial candidate.
When they were in California , Debbie remembers hearing someone in a hat shop say, "Honey, that is the man who changed my life."
"It's just amazing," she said.
She sent e-mails to his friends and former students, asking them to share memories with him. And then, recalls Wilmot, she read their e-mails to him.
"A lot of people out there learned a lot from Wes," he said.
Wes left UM three years ago on a disability retirement. One lung had been taken out the year before and he had chemotherapy off and on but the cancer kept coming back, Wilmot said.
"It was pretty amazing" how he struggled with it and turned it around, he added,
He was back at work in three weeks after the first surgery, Debbie recalled. He climbed to the "M" in September: a big goal of his for recovery. He was back teaching in the fall but cancer appeared in his other lung. He started chemotherapy and took the whole family to Europe .
It was part of his to-do list. "He did every single thing on it," said Chris, who grew up in Los Angeles with Wes' first wife, Pat, and her sister Teri.
He also published 11 journal articles and co-authored "Montana Territorial Postmarks." His friends nominated Wes for the Northwest Federation of Stamp Clubs "Distinguished Philatelist" award which he received in 2003.
Wes' daughter, Teri, who also lived in Los Angeles , remembers when she wanted to bond with her father. To get her interested in stamp collecting, they started out with Disney stamps.
"It was something he and I could do," she recalled. "We used to go to stamp auctions and I would say, 'I have a dollar. What can I get?' "
She still has the stamps - and the memories.