“I especially remember her genial personality and unlimited energy. Her features instantly impressed one with their kindly expression, and with a warm smile or a gentle touch on the shoulder she could win the heart of anyone she met.”— Virginia Vasquez-Bell, former student
Elizabeth Shannon, a tall, bright-eyed woman with a constant warm smile, dedicated her life to satisfying the curiosity of the young people of Clifton about the world around them. Genuinely concerned for each student, she made learning fun so that her pupils could get a good start in life. She also loved horseback riding, square dancing, and the history of the West – interests she shared unselfishly with others.
A native of Clifton, Elizabeth was born on July 16, 1906, to Baylor and Jettie (Gaddis) Shannon. Her father had moved to the area from Silver City, New Mexico, in the early 1870s. His brother Charles and his uncles Robert and Jim Metcalfe had discovered the rich copper deposits that led to the beginnings of Metcalf, Morenci, and Clifton. Baylor, however, soon gave up mining and established the Four Drag Ranch in the Eagle Creek Valley, forty miles from Clifton. There, Elizabeth spent the first thirteen years of her life. The ranch shaped Elizabeth’s thoughts, attitudes, and interests for years to come.
During World War I, her father sold the ranch and took the family throughout the West searching for better land. He thought he had found it in South Dakota and bought a ranch there. However, after three years of bitterly cold winters and the extremely hard work of putting up hay for the livestock, he sold out and returned to Arizona, settling in Duncan on the Gila River near the New Mexico line. Elizabeth attended Duncan High School, graduating in 1926. She then attended Silver City Junior College in New Mexico and the University of Arizona in Tucson, where she received a B.A. degree with a major in primary education, history, and political science, and a minor in physical education. These were Elizabeth’s main areas of interest for the rest of her life.
Upon graduation, she launched her teaching career at Austin High School in El Paso, Texas. Three and one-half years later, she moved on to an elementary school in Cliff, New Mexico, where she stayed for the next two years. She returned to Clifton permanently in 1938 to teach primary grades, her favorite age group. Elizabeth had a special skill with the young students. She was particularly successful with children who had reading difficulties, helping those with speech impediments by patiently having them read aloud. During World War II, she was promoted to principal of Liem Primary School in south Clifton.
Elizabeth constantly worked to keep her teaching techniques effective by attending seminars, panels, and workshops in Arizona and Colorado. She also adapted her lessons to fit the cultural needs of the people of Clifton. She taught her students the story of their copper-rich region, and all of her lessons stressed the positive side of the history of the West. In 1962 the State Department of Public Instruction named her Arizona Teacher of the Year.
Elizabeth encouraged other teachers to come to Clifton. Once there, she tried to make their new lives pleasant. At school she worked to ease teaching duties, and she also saw to it that they had a social life by organizing evenings of volleyball, basketball, and other games.
Elizabeth loved sports and believed that they were an important part of student life. When the Clifton High School needed an assistant coach for the girls’ volleyball team, she volunteered. Her talent and enthusiasm won her the head coaching position the following year. Every day in the fall after school she worked with her team. Her players loved her and excelled, winning many championships. A few years later, she became the girls’ tennis coach and once again produced winners. Elizabeth retired in 1973 after thirty-eight years of teaching in Clifton.
Next to teaching, horses were her greatest love. She owned several animals, which she kept corralled in a canyon near town. Every morning before school and every afternoon after coaching, she fed and watered them, taking horseback rides on Saturdays. To pass along her interests in ranch life, she took Clifton children on tours of surrounding ranches.
To help distribute her knowledge of Western riding, Elizabeth published articles in Horse Magazine and the National Education Association’s Manual for Teaching Western Riding, published in 1970. The book is used extensively by riding schools. With Portia Mansfield, she also produced two short 16mm color movies on riding.
Elizabeth taught horseback riding to students at Perry-Mansfield School, an institution of dance and drama located in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. She helped the female students there to gain confidence by succeeding in the riding program. By 1964 the program had reached its height, drawing as many girls as did the dance and drama courses. In the 1970s, when the school’s financial problems jeopardized the riding course, Elizabeth used her own resources to find horses and feed them. In 1979, two years before her retirement from Perry-Mansfield, at a ceremony in Washington, D.C., the NEA presented her with an award for outstanding pioneering in and contribution to horsemanship in America.
Elizabeth Shannon also taught riding to youth at the Clifton Riding Club, established in 1959. A year after Elizabeth began instructing there, the group grew from twelve to thirty riders, and came under the auspices of the 4-H. Elizabeth worked with the 4-H for the rest of her life, and in 1978 was named 4-H Leader of the Year. After retiring from teaching, she started the Rocky Acres Riding School in Verde Lee, five miles from Clifton, and conducted lessons there for the next twelve years.
Elizabeth had other strong interests outside of teaching and horses. She enjoyed square dancing, studied its history, and taught others. Always eager to pass along her knowledge, she called for clubs in Clifton and other towns, holding clinics to train other callers. At Perry-Mansfield, she brought her love of square dancing and riding together by teaching her students how to square dance while on their horses, and holding exhibitions in Steamboat Springs.
Belonging to a historic family of Arizona, Elizabeth inherited an interest in the history of the West. Her classes always conveyed this interest, and at Perry-Mansfield she gave the girls a sense of the Old West by teaching cowboy songs around the fire. To preserve the history of the Clifton area, she became a charter member of the Greenlee County Historical Society, serving as its first treasurer. The town hit hard times after the copper-mining strike of 1982 and a devastating flood the following year. Over three hundred buildings were washed away, including the Greenlee County Historical Museum and its collections. Elizabeth joined with others to try and rebuild the museum and the town’s economy.
Throughout her life, Elizabeth Shannon always had something underway for the benefit of young people or her town. With enthusiasm and genuine concern, she conveyed to her students her love of learning and life. Affection for horses pervaded her life. Her expertise in training riders in English and Western style brought her national recognition and made her a sought-after judge of horse shows, 4-H competitions, and jumping and dressage contests. With so many activities, she deserved a friend’s description of her as the “busiest woman in Arizona.” After retiring from teaching and from Perry-Mansfield, she remained as lively and vital as ever. In the fall of 1985, while on the way to direct the English Riding Show at the Greenlee County Fair, she suffered a stroke. She never recovered, and on December 28, 1985 Clifton lost a gracious lady it will never forget.
See below for women who have been inducted for their achievements with education in Arizona.