George Shannon, USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology instructional associate professor and holder of the Kevin Xu Chair in Gerontology, passed away on March 1. He was 84.
“With his commitment to creativity, learning and giving back to future generations, George personified the best principles of gerontology, said USC Leonard Davis School Dean Pinchas Cohen. “He lived life to its fullest and that is perhaps the greatest lesson he leaves for us all.”
Shannon, who was born in Chicago, IL on December 30, 1939, became a gerontology educator and researcher at the age of 64 after a decades-long career as an actor.
“People always ask me if it’s too late to go back to school and I always say no,” he said during an interview for USC News in 2018.
As an actor, Shannon performed in about 50 plays, including Hamlet. He lived in Paris for a short time, starring in a surreal film called I Will Walk Like a Crazy Horse. He moved to Los Angeles and, from the ’70s into the early ’90s, appeared in soap operas including the cultural breakthrough Generations on NBC, Search for Tomorrow, General Hospital, The Young and the Restless and How to Survive a Marriage. He also did voice-over work for automakers such as Cadillac and Isuzu.
“I probably did 1,200 commercials,” he said. “I was the Tiparillo man. I just did every car [ad] imaginable — Ford, Lincoln, Chevy, Mercedes-Benz. For 10 years, I pretty much always had a commercial on air.”
And just like in a Hollywood movie, he met his current wife Ellen in L.A., locking eyes while shopping at a Sherman Oaks supermarket. They quickly discovered in conversation that Ellen’s best friend Phyllis Gorby was his commercial agent. They married on New Year’s Eve, 1979.
Though he was still seeing success as an actor, Shannon found himself searching for a more meaningful career. He enrolled in college at age 55 and was drawn to gerontology after taking a class on women and aging. “I was appalled,” he said, after learning about aging women in poverty, many reeling from the gender pay gap or losing the sole breadwinner in their household. “I have four daughters. I thought this is something I can learn more about and contribute to.”
He earned his bachelor’s degree from Antioch University in 1997 after his mutual good friend Cathy-Rusoff-O’Neill said it would be a good fit for him and then attended the USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology for his master’s and PhD, graduating in 2004. George was a member of both the Phi Kappa Phi national honor society and the Sigma Phi Omega gerontology honor society. He became an instructional associate professor at the school in 2006.
From stardom to scholarship
Shannon’s first foray as a college student began when he was in his 20s as a married father of four, juggling work and night classes at the University of Illinois. But he dropped out to help support his family, working as an elevator repairman in Chicago skyscrapers. On the way to a repair job, he got “discovered” by an agent, and all of a sudden, he had headshots and auditions for modeling or acting parts.
“I was walking down Michigan Avenue with a toolbox in my hand and a woman asked if I ever thought of doing print work,” he recalled. “I was like Superman. … I would change into a suit [in my car], go into an agency and audition or actually do a job.” Then he’d run back to his car to change back into his work clothes.
Shannon and his first wife divorced, and he moved to New York to pursue acting full-time. There he studied under Lee Strasberg, a teacher known for training the likes of Marilyn Monroe, Jane Fonda, and Al Pacino.
Shannon brought an actor’s discipline to his studies and teaching.
“I had the privilege of knowing George first as a student and later as a colleague,” said USC Leonard Davis School Professor Kate Wilber. “He was an outstanding student, intellectually curious and passionate about gerontology. Later when he joined the faculty, his love of teaching and mentoring students was evident in everything he did.”
“George led a life full of great experiences,” said Kevin Xu, CEO of Mebo International and a USC alumnus who was inspired by Shannon. “He embodied the expression that, it is not the years in your life that count, it is the life in your years.”
As a gerontology instructor, he taught various courses ranging from sociology and aging to classes on social policy, economics and the moral dilemmas of caring for aging adults in society.
“The best teachers are born actors,” said Shannon “They love being in front of a group. They learn their material and they enjoy communicating.”
That enjoyment was evident in the classroom. His former students recalled him as an inspirational, warm, and caring professor who both drew them to the USC Leonard Davis School and supported them after they graduated.
He also led the intergenerational exchange project, Dor Vador, which shares the stories of Holocaust survivors with children. Funded by the Jewish Community Foundation, young people watched films of survivor stories, which they turned into art and then shared with the older adults they had seen on screen.
In recent years, he also had the chance to combine his performing and gerontology passions. Shannon consulted on a Norman Lear TV pilot set at a Palm Springs retirement community – Lear had wanted to make sure writers were accurate in their portrayal of a woman in the late stages of Alzheimer’s disease. He also served as the host of the Leonard Davis School’s podcast, Lessons in Lifespan Health.
He is survived by his wife Ellen, his five daughters, Mary Shannon (Tom Amenda), Elizabeth Shannon Reedy (Daniel), Margaret Shannon, Catherine Shannon (James Collins) and Phoenix Rising; eleven grandchildren, Thomas, Norah, Claire, Amanda, Harlan (Lindsay) Nora, Henry Kathleen, Daniel, David and Chacta (Emily); two great grandchildren, Jemma and Zeke; his brother Terrence; and nieces and nephew Tracey, Sandra Kelly and Michael.
A memorial service will be held at the school at 1 pm on Thursday, May 11. Details will be made available soon.