John Shearin stands by a wall of framed ECU production posters in the School of Theatre and Dance in 2015, when he received ECU’s Lifetime Achievement Award for Excellence in Research and Creative Activity, one of the most prestigious awards given by the university. (Photos by Cliff Hollis) 


School of Theatre and Dance's John Shearin remembered

April 10, 2017

By Crystal Baity
ECU News Services

John D. Shearin III, professor and director of the School of Theatre and Dance at East Carolina University, died Sunday, April 9. He was 72.


In addition to leading the school for 27 years, Shearin taught student actors and produced and directed productions for ECU.


Last year, Shearin announced his decision to step back from the chair position to concentrate solely on teaching beginning this fall.


“John has been the guiding light of our theatre and dance program for the better part of three decades,” said Dr. Chris Buddo, dean of the College of Fine Arts and Communication. “His work has impacted the lives of countless students and faculty over the course of his time here. John’s leadership was so effective because he always kept a sharp focus on the mission of the school and the good of the students.”


Shearin produced more than 195 plays and musicals for the ECU/Loessin Playhouse and Summer Theatre. He directed 72 productions and acted in about a dozen, several of which he significantly reconstructed or adapted for ECU’s facilities and students.


In 2015, Shearin was awarded ECU’s Lifetime Achievement Award for Excellence in Research and Creative Activity, one of the most prestigious awards given by the university.


“Personally, John was a wonderful mentor to me when I first came to ECU as director of the School of Music,” Buddo said. “He had a warm and generous spirit and will be greatly missed.”

John Shearin is pictured on stage at ECU in 2005.


Dr. Ron Mitchelson, provost at ECU, also remembered Shearin’s mentorship. “My first year here, he was the one who spent time with me. He was always generous with his time,” Mitchelson said. “He was a wonderful academic leader at ECU for decades with tremendous impact on students and faculty. He will be missed.”


Patch Clark, a longtime ECU colleague, said Shearin “provided us with the highest of standards for which to strive and embraced every opportunity to encourage all those who came in contact with him to reach outstanding heights in their craft, their teaching and their work.


“A stalwart leader who set the pace for dedication, energy and artistic insight, John touched the hearts and minds of audience members, students, faculty and staff who will long remember him as the beacon of light on life’s amazing journey,” Clark said.


A Vietnam War veteran, Shearin graduated with a bachelor’s degree in theatre from the College of William and Mary and received his master’s degree of fine arts from Penn State University, where he worked with the touring and resident graduate company.

He appeared in network television shows including “Matlock,” “Designing Women,” “Dawson’s Creek,” “Hunter,” “Little House on the Prairie,” “American Gothic” and “Bret Maverick.” Even as a working TV actor, he stayed involved in theater including stints on and off Broadway and in several Los Angeles area theatres, the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. and the Loeb Drama Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

He was a founding member and associate director of the Playhouse West School of Acting in Los Angeles before deciding on a move for his young, growing family.

“I discovered I liked working with young people,” Shearin said in a 2015 interview when he was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award. “I enjoyed that mentoring, of working with young actors to help their development as actors and performers. Teaching was something I always wanted to do.”

Shearin started looking at education-based theater and called Ed Loessin after seeing an ad for a teaching job at ECU. Loessin had been the stage manager of the North Carolina outdoor drama “Unto these Hills,” where Shearin’s father once acted.


The teaching position was temporary, and Shearin didn’t want to uproot his family for a one-year appointment. But Shearin called Loessin again after seeing a posting weeks later for the chairman of the department.


After 18 years as a working actor, Shearin became chairman of the then ECU Department of Theatre Arts in fall 1990. He was only the second chairman of the department. The first was Loessin, who helped found it in 1963. Later named the Department of Theatre and Dance, Shearin was at the helm when the department became a school within the College of Fine Arts and Communication established in 2003.


Shearin, who spent time as a child on his grandparent’s farm in nearby Edgecombe County, received a warm welcome when he was hired. He recognized the potential for growing the arts in eastern North Carolina. “The foundation was so good and the possibilities for building the program were so strong,” he said in the 2015 interview.

Under Shearin’s leadership, the school grew significantly in enrollment and majors, drawing thousands of patrons to student productions each year in Messick and McGinnis theatres and Wright Auditorium. A recent project has been the development of a much-needed dance studio.  


Shearin is survived by his wife, Jennifer, and three children.


A celebration of Shearin’s life will be held May 7 in McGinnis Theatre. A scholarship fund is being established in his memory. For more information, contact Mary Jane Gaddis in the College of Fine Arts and Communication at 252-328-1268 or

Speaking at ECU’s faculty convocation in 2015, John Shearin recalled a pair of one-act plays he wrote, directed and starred in early in his career. The plays arose from his experiences as a soldier during the Vietnam War, and he recounted some of the emotional responses the performances drew from fellow veterans and what those reactions meant to him. “It’s an experience I wish for all of my students,” he said.