When Gayle Shaffer left the Midwest to attend college on the Gulf Coast, it didn’t take long for her to experience Southern hospitality at the University of South Alabama.
“I immediately felt at home,” she said. “You couldn’t walk across campus without everyone you meet saying ‘Hey’. I liked it. I made friends there and they taught me to talk about the South. I felt like I was part of a community. That’s what has always resonated with me.
Shaffer – now Rear Admiral Gayle Shaffer, Navy Deputy Surgeon General – had a scholarship in South. She also worked part-time in the Marine biology laboratory of Dr. John Freeman, who studied the molting cycle of blue crabs.
“My job – it was really tough, let me tell you – was to go down to Dauphin Island, go crab fishing and bring the blue crabs back to the lab,” she says. “Then I just had to make sure they were fed every day, and I cleaned their tank and did what I had to do. Every once in a while we would have an escapee walking through the lab, and I would corral him to get him back to the tank, but it was a lot of fun.
Shaffer got a biology graduated from the South in 1987, went to dental school and then joined the Navy. What started out as a job outside of school has turned into a career spanning over 30 years.
When she joined the service, women were not allowed to board combat ships. Now they are used on everything from aircraft carriers to submarines.
Shaffer, 59, has made two deployments to the Mediterranean. She served in Okinawa and Japan. She ran a medical facility in Djibouti, Africa, and commanded a joint medical unit in Kandahar, Afghanistan.
Since 2014, she has been stationed in Washington, DC. Last year, she became the first dentist to be appointed Assistant Surgeon General of the Navy.
In a Zoom interview from his office, Shaffer wore a Navy uniform with twin stars across the shoulders. She recalled her days in the south. She described how to seize opportunities and build a career.
“You have to have good mentors who are going to push you out of your comfort zone,” she says. “You have to be comfortable being uncomfortable. And it’s important not to be your own barrier. I decided early on that if I was offered certain things, I was not going to say no. It is better to volunteer than to volunteer. “
Southern Roommates, Sorority Sisters
In the south, Paige Walsh was Shaffer’s roommate in the Delta residence. Then they rented a house in the Hillsdale neighborhood. Classmates remember his potato soup.
“She was always the adult in the room – always,” Walsh said. “She was very motivated in school, but to accomplish what she did, my God.
Walsh and Shaffer were from different southern sororities. They had fun. They drove around town in a convertible.
“She had the coolest little car, a Triumph Spitfire,” Walsh said. “We went to Chicago once to visit his family. I didn’t hear anything when I got out of that car.
Kelley Rideout, another classmate from the South, met Shaffer in Alpha Omicron Pi. Over 30 years later, they keep in touch with Zoom calls.
“It’s not every day that you have a sorority sister who is an Admiral, is it?” Rideout said. “She was always on top of everything, and so smart. I knew that whatever she was going to do, she would do it to the best of her ability.
Believe in yourself
Shaffer grew up in Bloomington, Ill., But her family planned a move to Los Angeles – “Lower Alabama” – and she signed up to South.
After graduating and graduating from dental school, she planned to see the world through the Navy. This plan got off to a slow start. She laughs when she says her first posting was to the Great Lakes Naval Base in the Midwest.
His first ship was the USS Puget Sound, a destroyer.
“They don’t even have them anymore,” she joked. “It tells you how old I am.”
In an interview with Navy Medicine magazine for Women’s History Month, Shaffer spoke about the importance of believing in yourself and not questioning your own decisions. She took on tough jobs and worked hard to be successful. She has built a reputation for herself and has led it throughout her career.
Shaffer said she is always learning on the job. She hasn’t seen everything. There is always something new to master.
In the United States, it has been stationed everywhere, from Jacksonville, Florida, to Camp Pendleton, California, and Bethesda, Maryland. She received a Masters of Health Science from George Washington University in Washington, DC
She married in 1998. Her husband, Shawn Shaffer, was also in the Navy.
“We met after she retired,” she said. “He was able to have a sort of second career in the Navy, following me.”
Shaffer enjoys musical theater and traveling to New York. She jokes with her friends in Alabama about being able to visit them when she retires. She wouldn’t recognize the university if she visited, they say.
“The campus was very small,” she says. “Now they got the big clock tower and things.”
Over the years, Shaffer considered a career change, but never left the Navy. She chokes a little as she talks about her shipmates, colleagues and time spent in service.
“When I weighed my options, the Navy was my best,” she said. “I realized that what I was going to miss the most was the camaraderie. You work with the best people you will meet in your life. “
(Courtesy of University of Southern Alabama)