The peacemaker’s blessing

Armatage’s Will Shapira is the go-to guy for Twin Cities peace activists, but has made a career of giving — to special needs kids and minority businesspeople

Armatage resident and retired public relations specialist William Shapira won a $1,000 volunteer award from his 17-year employer, 3M, for volunteer work at Southwest’s Armatage School and the Minnesota Alliance of Peacemakers. The monetary award goes to Shapira’s charity of choice.

But for Shapira, volunteering has been part of his life since long before he retired. He credits an incident in 1968, just after Rev. Martin Luther King was assassinated, for beginning what he calls "a career in volunteerism."

At the time, Shapira was working for Honeywell, which like 3M has a tradition of community involvement and generous giving. Following King’s murder, riots broke out in the black community on the city’s north side. An engineer from another company walked into Shapira’s public relations office and said they needed to do something to help local black-owned businesses. Immediately inspired, Shapira, who grew up on the North side, agreed to help form a partnership. That pairing resulted in the first edition of what’s now become the National Black Business Directory.

Since then Shapira has spent much of his life giving back in a variety of ways: volunteering with students in the Minneapolis Public Schools, helping to preserve and promote old-time jazz, and using his public relations skills to help anti-war activists get their message out.

"I’m not naive, I know one person alone can’t bring about world peace. But if I can improve the world one iota, it shows that anyone at any age can contribute," said Shapira.

Don’t ask, just help

A weekly volunteer at Armatage Community School, Shapira dedicates his time to children in special education, who fall under a variety of diagnoses.

Shapira doesn’t focus on kids’ maladies. "I don’t ask, it’s not going to make a difference how I treat them, I’m not a doctor or a physiologist, that’s private," said Shapira.

Each Monday, Shapira is assigned six students, 5th- and 6th-graders who are between 10 and 12 years old. He spends a half an hour with each, helping and listening to them read a book. After they read, the students take a test to evaluate how well they are progressing towards their basic skills. However, Shapira finds that their time is more than basic skills preparation.

"Sometimes they just need someone to sit with them and say nothing; you have to be flexible and sense what’s going on with them," Shapira said.

Good luck brought Shapira to work with a diverse group of students in special education. He answered a call out for volunteers in the public schools from a Jewish community organization and was placed at Hans Christian Anderson elementary school in the Central neighborhood. In an Anderson special education classroom, Shapira was first impressed with students’ diligence and ambition. At Anderson and at Armatage, Shapira notices how well the students work together, despite their difficulties.

"Some of the bilingual students finished off their work in no time, and dedicated themselves to helping their peers. It’s moving to see how much they want to succeed," said Shapira.

Nearly a journalist

Graduating from Minneapolis’ North High and then the University of Minnesota’s School of Journalism in 1958, Shapira has a career of experience in public relations, with stints at large corporations, and writing for a sports medicine publication, sports reporting and started out at WCCO Radio.

"I was on a lunch break from an exam at the Star, and I stopped by WCCO to say hello to a producer who’d lectured at the Journalism school. It turned out someone had just quit, and he offered me the job on the spot," said Shapira.

He accepted the job, and then called the Star back, to let them know he’d gotten another position while on his lunch break.

"That’s the closest I came to working for a metro paper," said Shapira.

Like most professionals in the media industry, Shapira is full of stories. His most exciting work for 3M occurred during the 1988 Calgary Olympics when the corporation was sponsoring the America luge team.

"We went across the country hosting public luge tryouts, including here on a hill off River Road," said Shapira.

In the last year and a half, Shapira has found a source for his skills with the Minnesota Alliance of Peacemakers (MAP). Troubled and opposed to the second U.S. military invasion of Iraq, he offered his services as a marketer to MAP to get more publicity for the peace movement. He teaches media classes that show activists how to prepare press releases, call talk-show programs, host news conferences and write opinion articles.

"I help them to read and listen to the media and relate it to their own issues. It doesn’t have to cost a lot of money to get your stories out there," Shapira said.

The toughest part of the job is convincing some peacemakers to go ahead and tell their stories.

"It makes me go nuts, I can’t figure out why they don’t want to get their stories out. But that’s not my job; I’m a resource to them and I don’t force anything," Shapira said.

Still, he’s had some successes. After meeting Phil Steger, a St. Paul resident who was returning to Iraq as a peacemaker, Shapira organized local and national media interviews with the activist while Steger was in Baghdad.

"I coordinated interviews with him for the National Public Radio correspondent in Beirut, and it also made the Associated Press. It was the most satisfying accomplishment to get his voice out there," said Shapira.

Shapira’s become a go-to person for Twin Cities journalists, looking for local peacemakers and opposition to war.

Shapira thinks his two very different volunteer jobs fit the same long-term goal.

"These kids are the citizens of tomorrow. Volunteering for MAP gives kids a better chance for a more peaceful world; they have enough problems growing up as it is," Shapira said.

With all of his public relations volunteering and grade- school tutoring, Shapira has one other duty that’s a full-time hobby: jazz.

He started young, when as a kid his father would take him out of school to see all-day Big Band shows at downtown’s Orpheum Theatre with his older brother.

"My dad was a jazz nut. We’d be out of school for a show that started at noon and we’d be there for the whole damn day. It was a great gift from him," Shapira said.

Providentially, he’s married to Leslie Johnson, the publisher and editor of the Mississippi Rag, a monthly newspaper for traditional jazz enthusiasts. Shapira writes a regular column devoted to ragtime and traditional jazz in the Midwest.

"There is good jazz playing every night in this town," Shapira said. "It’s a great place for jazz."

At 66, Shapira calls himself semi-retired and is always looking for new opportunities.

"I’d go back to full-time work for the right job, I’m still mostly functioning," Shapira said with a laugh.