Marilyn Sheerer oral history


Marilyn Sheerer


Zachary P. Dale

East Carolina University


July 19, 2018

Alderman Hall

University of North Carolina Wilmington

ZD: It is Thursday, July 19th, 4:09 PM. Zachary Dale is conducting this interview, and we are at the University of Wilmington. I will turn it over to my interviewee.

MS: My name is Marilyn Sheerer. I serve as the Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs here at UNCW, as they say.

ZD: Do I have consent to conduct this interview?

MS: Absolutely, yes.

ZD: Well, thank you so much for agreeing to this interview. I'm so excited. Why don't we begin? Tell me a little bit about yourself. Where you're from and tell me a little bit about your family.

MS: Okay. I was born in Central Pennsylvania in Harrisburg, and grew up in a more rural part of that area, a little town called Port Royal. One of the funny little things, I think, is that my sister was gay, and I never knew it when we were growing up because in my age, in that time and place, people didn't talk about gay. They didn't talk about homosexuality. They didn't talk about anything like that. (1:01)

MS: It wasn't until she went to college, and was a Phys Ed major, and I visited her, literally. I was older. I was two years older, and I met her part-, it was her partner then, and it became her life partner actually, but, ding, ding, ding. Oh yeah. Okay, so that's partly that background. Then I went to a teachers college, and then I went to Syracuse and got a Master's degree, and went to Temple University and worked awhile, and then had my son, moved back to Central PA. Followed, unfortunately, I mean followed a husband who I later divorced, but anyway, Brian, my first child, was also gay.

MS: I became very involved. When we moved to Ohio, I worked at Ohio University, and I was on the ... they called it the Human Rights Committee. Then, my daughter got ... I had my daughter, then my daughter was a lot younger than my son. She got into middle school. We would do things like go into the residents halls and talk to kids about gay rights. She was very involved. I knew my son ... My son came out to me in the seventh grade, but I knew that before that. He was very accepted in our family, and as a result is very together kind of psychologically. I had two instances in my family. (2:33)

MS: As my mother said ... My mother said once when she found out about Brian, she said, "Well, I have one too, Brian." I thought that was a riot. In my different jobs at different universities, I worked at four different ones, when I came to ECU, it wasn't hard for me to get involved in diversity projects, and think about ways I could contribute.

ZD: How long did you work at ECU?

MS: 18 years.

ZD: What was your position there?

MS: When I first came, I was the Dean of Education.

ZD: Okay.

MS: I was the Dean of Education for eight or nine years, and then, Steve Ballard, who was the Chancellor, asked me to do some other things. I was the Vice Chancellor for Advancement for a year. I was the Vice Chancellor for Student Life for a year. Then he asked me to be the Interim Provost. After I became the Interim Provost, then I became the permanent Provost. (3:25)

MS: I was the permanent Provost for probably about seven years. All totaled, 18 years worth of time there. I worked with Steve Ballard for all of his years. Wonderful leader. Yeah, and, you know, just a side note, very committed to gay rights, to the idea also.

ZD: Absolutely. What sort of resources were available before the LGBT Resource Office was created?

MS: Oh, I'd say just about nothing. I mean, I guess as I looked around, the Diversity Committee, I guess, had, as I'm trying to think back now, maybe a subcommittee on gay rights or something, but there just wasn't anything. When I heard Summer do her thesis presentation, I was like, "Oh, my God." When I heard what she was doing, and I went to hear it, and I got all revved up over the whole thing.

ZD: We'll jump back to Summer's research. I want to talk about the creation of the Chancellor's Diversity Council and the Diversity Center. What was that? What was your role in that? (4:29)

MS: Well, I wasn't ... I didn't have an absolute direct role. Let me see. I have to think back to that. I served on the advisory group, or what have you, and so I was always pushing for different speakers or projects, and that kind of thing, but I wasn't the leader. I mean, we had a Chief Diversity Officer, and then, we had ... Yeah, so that came out of that. I'm almost forgetting exactly what ... The diversity group, and then there was a commission on the status of women, and I was very involved in that. That was part of the diversity initiative more broadly.

ZD: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Tell me about meeting Jesse Peele for the first time. I'd love to hear that story.

MS: Funny one, actually. When I was the Head of Advancement, that year they put me there as the Interim Vice Chancellor for Advancement, what did I know about raising money? I knew about how to organize a system, and I met Scott. Scott was a good friend. Why am I forgetting her last name? Scott .

ZD: Scott Wells? (5:48)

MS: Wells. That's exactly right. When I met Scott, she was one of gift officers, and so she started talking to me about different contacts she had, and she said, "You know somebody you would love to meet? I'm going to his mother's funeral." I'm like, "What?" She said, "Well, it's up in Everetts." "Where's Everetts?" I mean I wasn't from that area, so I didn't know these places. She said, "Well, you'd be amazed where it is." She told me a little bit about him. Said he was a psychiatrist, and he's gay, and he grew up in Everetts, and I've gotten to know him really well. I said, "Oh my God. I'll go with you." I go to this funeral for his mother, and that's where I met him.

MS: It was sort of one of those instant, just we clicked. I found him amazingly interesting. I could not believe that he grew up in this little town of Everetts. It was like my little town that I grew up in. He was the drum major of the band. There was a picture up, I remember, in his house. That's how it started. Then, he had AIDS, but it was arrested. I don't remember whatever the word is that he used. He was very, very thin, so he would often, I'm sure he still is very, very thin, and Scott and I would go out to dinner when he would come into town. You always had to have a pillow to sit on. I'm like, "Oh my God, Jesse." (7:18)

MS: We just clicked, and we started talking about what we didn't have, and I don't remember the sequence, to be honest with you. I started talking about getting a space for the LGBT thing, and then when I met Summer, I realized I needed somebody who could actually lead this thing. Then I talked Virginia Hardy into actually putting her in there. It was just this sort of a series of things, and I can't remember. It's been a while now since I've been here, so I can't remember the timing necessarily. Jesse was a big part of it, and having his presence, and he would come back. The fact that he graduated from Chapel Hill, but he lived close to ECU. He understood. I mean Chapel Hill was ahead of us in terms of their diversity stuff, so was State, so was whatever, but not ECU. ECU was close to where he grew up, so why not give something back to ECU?

MS: Then he met Steve Ballard, and of course, Steve Ballard was very gay-friendly, or whatever you want to say. Together we kept nurturing all that. Jesse gave me his book to read, and woohoo, or books, I kind of forget the number on them. I think I have copies of them. I pulled him into the Honors Advisory Board, I think. You know why. Well, because he'd had a lot to contribute. He wanted to contribute. It also brought a gay presence into regular things, which I always think is important that we don't just have these separate things for the LGBTQIA community, that we have broader involvement. (8:58)

ZD: Tell me about your involvement in the creation of the LGBT Resource Office at ECU.

MS: I don't know that it was very intricate. I mean, I think I said to Steve Ballard, and I can't remember the other center that was over in Brewster. There was another center there. I don't remember the name of it. African American, maybe, Center. Some kind of another project. The space was hardly ever used. I recognize that one space was kind of left free. I said, "Why don't we at least designate some area as a starting point?" I just talked them into it. I don't know. I mean I just said, "We need it, Steve. I mean my God, we're so far behind, blah, blah, blah." We designated that area. Then, we first put Summer in there part-time I remember, and then, of course, we just kept pushing. Virginia Hardy then was over in the Student Life part of it.

MS: Then, from there, we went to, I don't even remember, again, the sequence when we went to ... We're going to be doing the planning for the new Student Union Building, and obviously that's the place we've got to shoot for, and quite a presence. Then, of course. Jesse comes in again, and he's all excited about that because that would give us the kind of visibility that we were looking for. (10:13)

ZD: Was there any push back with the creation of the LGBT Resource Office?

MS: No. I honestly don't remember that there was. If there was, it was under me. I mean by then I was the provost, and people were either afraid to tell me that they didn't agree with what I wanted to do, or maybe the time had come for something. Then, the other thing that started at that time was the Lavender Graduation. I participated in that. That was sort of significant because they let me speak a little bit. I said, "When my son graduated from Ohio University, he was still pretending. He was out pretty much, but there was certainly no Lavender Graduation for him." Those kind of things all complimented each other, and what I found was oh my God, Lavender Graduation, we had people come that were professors that I didn't know were gay.

MS: Not all of them were, but the point was some people were waiting, I guess, for some kind of legitimate reason to come out, or support. There was another man there over in the med school, David Weismiller. He was openly gay. I got him pretty involved in helping to push for the center. He came to the Lavender Graduation, and I think he gave some money at one point for something. I kept trying to find people at the university who would be colleagues. Even though I've never been gay, but it didn't matter. I had a gay son, I had a gay sister. I was always involved. In many ways, as an ally, I could push for some stuff that maybe timing wise. The town of Greenville is a very conservative town. Oh my God. I'm not religious at all. I know Jesse is. This is a point we'll be probably diverged. I'm a true agnostic, and the churches are everywhere up there, the Baptist religion. (12:27)

MS: In my opinion, it's one of the challenges that the gay community has always had to meet because if you're going to find a sin, or blasphemy, or whatever the heck they talk about, just drove me crazy. It was all around us up there. In some ways it didn't surprise me. ECU was never an activist campus, which Summer found out. That was one of the things that she said. What was the reason why things were so delayed? That made sense to me. Again, when you say, "Was there resistance?" Not that I'm aware of, but there could have been underneath, streams of it. I don't know.

ZD: Why do you think a space like the Resource Office is necessary?

MS: Oh wow. Okay, so I think gay, queer, whatever your designation, lesbians, people who have grown up, and that's their orientation, they need a safe place to go. They really, honest to God, need a safe place to go. I don't care what anybody says, we could accept them anywhere. Yeah, well bullshit because that's not true, and especially not true if the family has been non-accepting. I've dealt with a lot of parents over the years. I would just say to people in the center, or at Ohio University they have an active center. Athens, Ohio is actually pretty activist, the university and the community. Brian and I used to go to this bar, O'Hooley's Bar, and a lot of gay people went there, and cross dressers went there, and he used to dance with crossdressers. (14:12)

MS: I mean it was like that was like a safe haven there, that social club, but then also they had a identified space. I was used to that I kept thinking, "There's no safe place for people to go." I see it here too. I think that's really important. Now, if that's the only place that people feel okay, that's not good, I don't think, and so I think part of our work ought to be trying to get broad conversations. We had these conversations up there I started with Virginia, what are they called? Critical conversations. We would have a dinner, and we would bring very diverse people together, international students, gay students, whatever. Certainly not all white and whatever, and we would have these dinners, and then we'd have discussions. Critical conversations, you know, where people talked about what it was like growing up gay, or growing up black, and how hard it was because the African American population was so small in Greenville, to play the professional community. (15:17)

MS: Those efforts, to me, were all part of ... You don't just sit over here in a little safe enclave and whatever, and feel safe with your own. I think you have to learn. My son always says, my son lives in Manhattan. My son always said his view was he was out from college on, but even toward the end of high school with some people, and he went through phases where he wore all black, and had a lock of hair, and hung out with women a lot, girls. Had some bad experiences about all that, just rednecks in the outlying Athens area, in the rural section. He always said, "I let people just get to know me, me, and then at some point I say, 'You know, by the way, I'm gay. In case you didn't know.'" You asked me ... Oh, why do I think it was the center, yeah. I mean why do we need a space? I also pushed for, what's that called?

ZD: Safe Zone.

MS: Safe Zone Training. Aaron Lucier at ECU, and I ... I did the training and ... I didn't do the training. I took the training because I hadn't done it, and I had a little time. I was one of the first one, administrators, to put that up on my door. No bragging, I just thought, "I'm going to set the pace here," and I put that up on my door. All these things sort of related to the fact that we created space that we were going to work planning for the student union and that kind of stuff. (16:54)

ZD: Is there anything I haven't asked that you would like to share?

MS: Hmm. Probably not in terms of what you're trying to do. I mean you're just trying to do the oral history of what happened up there, and why it went where it went. By the way, when is the opening?

ZD: It should be in January.

MS: Oh, please let me know.

ZD: Of course.

MS: Wow, I will definitely try to come up there.

ZD: Well, I'm glad to hear that.

MS: Yeah. That would be great. I guess if I had been able to do more there, I think I would have ... I don't know exactly how I would have done this, but tried to involve maybe more of the community in the acceptance of the gay, lesbian, QIA community. I don't know what that would mean exactly. One of the women who, I don't know if you know what an ACE Fellow is. As a faculty member you can be American Council of Education. She's been doing that all year. She's just been away, but I hired her as my Associate Vice-Chancellor for Community Engagement, and she's a very, very assertive lesbian. Because she was involved in community engagement, she's a very good spokesperson. She was social worker by background. (18:30)

MS: Here, she's not in that job anymore because she's going to go onto something else, but that was a really important role for her to have here. I don't think universities are still completely accepting of either administrators, faculty ... Faculty more so because faculty can be quirky, and they can wear funny nose things and stuff, whatever. For administrators like me to speak out on behalf of gay rights is sometimes not met with ... Nobody ever told me not to, I don't mean that, but you can always tell. There was a guy up there who was the CFO, no longer there. Gone. He didn't like ... I knew he didn't like me, and I'm not usually somebody that people readily dislike, but I had to work with him, so I went to Steve Ballard with a certain point, and I said, "Listen, I'm pretty insightful about some of this stuff, and Kevin doesn't like me for some reason." (19:35)

MS: He said, "Yeah." I said, "What do you mean, yeah?" He said, I had been at a party where they were having all these discussions about stuff, and one was religion, and then one was gay rights and stuff. On both topics I spoke out, and he was a right wing, religious conservative. I didn't know that. Steve said, "Well, why don't you go ask him? I don't feel like I should tell you." I went to him, and I said, "You know, I know you're not comfortable with me, and I don't know why." Well, he kind of covered it up by saying, "Well, I used to work for a person like you, and you kind of just are very outspoken, and you say things sometimes without thinking. I said, "Without thinking? Well, I don't think I talk without thinking." (20:21)

MS: I think underneath was just no. I mean you can't not believe in God, and you can't believe in gay rights and all that stuff. That's not okay. Consequently, he couldn't get the guts up to say that to me, but that's really what I attributed it to. I went back to Steve, and I said, "I think this is what it is." He goes, "Mmm."

ZD: Well, if there's anything else you'd like to add, I think we're good here.

MS: I don't think so. I really think it's great that you're doing this.

ZD: Well, thank you so very much. Thank you so much for doing this interview.

MS: Oh, my pleasure for sure. (21:01)

Marilyn Sheerer oral history
In this oral history Dr. Marilyn Sheerer discusses the development of support for the LGBTQ community at East Carolina University and her work with Jesse Peel on the creation of the Jesse R. Peel LGBTQ Center. Interviewer: Zachary Dale. Interviewed at Alderman Hall on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.
July 19, 2018
Original Format
oral histories
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Location of Original
University Archives
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