Head shaved, middle school teacher is back in her class with a plan

It has become something of a tradition at K.O. Knudson Middle School.

Every year at about this time, history teacher Sheila Whitmore comes to school with a bald head. And her students’ eyes go wide.

Some are curious, others are stunned to silence — no mean feat for members of the middle school set. When Ms. Whitmore makes her entrance with a serious buzz cut, even the hard-case kids are impressed.

Early Saturday afternoon at McMullan’s Irish Pub on Tropicana Avenue during the annual St. Baldrick’s Foundation fundraiser to support childhood cancer treatment and research, Whitmore shaved for the seventh consecutive year.

“I’ve had students cry,” she said afterward. “Some of the toughest students have come up to me and said, ‘Thank you.’ It’s an experience that’s so dear to me.”

Previously from Gary, Ind., Whitmore has taught for 35 years, a decade in Clark County. Now known as an Academy of Creative Arts and Technology, K.O. Knudson has been open more than 50 years and is one of the oldest public schools in the district.

St. Baldrick’s is the largest fundraiser for childhood cancer research in the nation outside the federal government. More than $1 million raised in recent years at McMullan’s and other venues has remained in the Southern Nevada community in the form of grants and stipends for local pediatric oncology clinics.

As with so many of the hundreds of fundraising “shavees,” there’s a poignant back story to Whitmore’s dedication to the cause. Her interest in making a contribution to a cure began nearly two decades ago when her young niece, Danielle Seals, was diagnosed with leukemia.

The child lived approximately one year after her diagnosis. In those days, childhood cancer killed a majority of its victims.

“I really started doing this because of her,” Whitmore said. “After I moved here (from Gary, Ind.), I saw that St. Baldrick’s happened each year around her birthday. I said, ‘This was meant to be.’ Her birthday is tomorrow. She would have been 29 years old.”

This year, Whitmore was part of a three-woman team that included Joani Emery and Margie Maura. The trio also bowls together in a United States Bowling Congress league, and Emery teaches the sport. Their St. Baldrick’s team name: “USBC’ing Us Bald.”

When their time on stage ended, they looked more than a little like their bowling balls.

Saturday marked Emery’s eighth year as a St. Baldrick’s volunteer. She started in an effort to honor a 4-year-old cousin afflicted with retinal blastoma.

Emery’s experience helped introduce Whitmore to the cause.

Her first year, she carried the hope for a cure with the knowledge that then-K.O. student Justin Williams had been diagnosed with cancer.

That’s the way it is. Take a moment, and it doesn’t require much searching to find a child or a family touched by pediatric cancer.

Knowing that, Whitmore and hundreds of other Southern Nevadans annually step up and raise funds. Some give time, others money.

And hair, of course.

They lose their locks, but ask them and they will tell you they gain much more from the experience.

Now that she’s back in the classroom, Whitmore has a plan.

“I’m hoping to get a team started at school,” she says.

History has taught her that some of life’s lessons aren’t found in books.

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. Email him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call 702-383-0295. Follow him on Twitter @jlnevadasmith.

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