Penn State College of Arts and Architecture
Center for the Performing Arts at Penn State
George Trudeau presents a hand-crafted wooden bowl and an award plaque to Shirley Sacks with her son Stud standing beside her.

Shirley Sacks a ‘straight shooter’ advocate for the arts

By Heather Longley

Shirley Sacks recalls being reluctant to retire in State College.

“I thought that there was mostly a ‘Rah, rah’ Penn State football culture,” she says.

Her husband was a big fan, but she would need more than the Nittany Lions’ line of blue and white to keep her happy. Future Shirley would find comfort in discovering the arts community and be pleasantly surprised to receive the 2015 Center for the Performing Arts Distinguished Service Award.

Shirley and William Sacks were ready to hang up their lab whites and leave Rockland County, New York, but circumstances wouldn’t allow them to live in Philadelphia. William Sacks suggested they relocate to the home of Penn State, where he and their son, Stu, earned degrees.

She put up what she describes as “token resistance,” and in 1992 they made State College their official retirement destination. Now she had all the time in the world to herself. She had no job, no kids at home—but she yearned for a connection outside of her family life.

“It took about six months to feel like I might belong,” she recalls.

She met Eileen Leibowitz, a Center for the Performing Arts member and event sponsor, who shared her secret to meeting others of similar interests.

“‘You’re gonna have to join these organizations,’ ” Leibowitz recalls telling Shirley.

Over the years, the New York expat involved herself with a number of State College and Penn State organizations—the Nittany Valley Symphony Guild, the Palmer Museum of Art, Schlow Centre Region Library, the American Association of University Women, and Music at Penn’s Woods. She joined book clubs and immersed herself in her synagogue.

She wasn’t overextending herself; she was embracing the opportunities State College had to offer.

“It gives you a feeling of belonging, and (it’s) a great way to meet others.”

Shirley Sacks

“It gives you a feeling of belonging, and (it’s) a great way to meet others,” she says.

Shirley’s education and work experience focused on math and science—the background required to conduct brain chemistry research at a psychiatric hospital—but her interests gravitated to the arts. She claims her creative abilities are most on display when cooking for friends. They agree.

“Shirley’s training as a scientist is intertwined with her artistic expression.”

Chris Lichtig

“Shirley’s training as a scientist is intertwined with her artistic expression,” says Chris Lichtig, a friend who’s also a Center for the Performing Arts Community Advisory Council member and event co-sponsor. “It has been an honor to be a guest at many of these dinners, where the arts are discussed and support encouraged. Her home is a gracious setting where friendship is savored and discussion is lively.”

It was at these get-togethers that a renewed interest and advocacy for the arts took root. When she moved to central Pennsylvania, Shirley had an idea of the region’s musical community. Stu had been a member of Penn State’s symphony orchestra and jazz band, and William, who died in 2006, played bassoon with the Nittany Valley Symphony. But with her personal involvement, she became more invested in the arts scene.

“I enjoy a variety of shows,” Shirley says. “I try to go to as many performances as I can.”

“We just get every ticket and go to everything,” Leibowitz adds. “That’s what she enjoys most. She’s a great advocate for all of the arts, by virtue.”

Part of Shirley’s role in her twelve years on the Community Advisory Council was to inspire others to attend Center for the Performing Arts presentations. As a staunch supporter of the performing and visual arts, she says she thinks the center is underrated. It’s that sentiment, a sense of ownership and pride in the artistic community, that earned her the service award.

“Recognition for her work was never part of her thinking.”

Chris Lichtig

“Recognition for her work was never part of her thinking,” Lichtig says. “Her mantra is that the arts must be supported by attendance at events, ticket purchases, donations, serving on boards, volunteering, and on and on.”

George Trudeau, Center for the Performing Arts director, agrees that Shirley’s greatest gift to the arts is her passion.

“I can count on Shirley always offering her thoughts and opinions—hers and passing along others’—with feeling,” he says. “She’s a straight shooter with pretty good aim.”

Knowing what she knows today—more than two decades after settling in Nittany Valley—Shirley says she wishes more people would see what she sees.

“I think that the Center for the Performing Arts is a wonderful organization, offers great performances in a variety of interests, and is affordable,” she says.