Golden Apple

Eastern Hancock choir director survives cancer, inspires students

Eastern Hancock choir director survives cancer, inspires students

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Ind. (WISH) — Mr. Shawn Gilliland insists he’s not done teaching yet.

He’s a choir director at Eastern Hancock Schools, covering grades 1 through 12. He started his teaching career in 1982 and says he can’t imagine teaching any other subject.

In 2009 the thought did cross his mind, as doctors revealed the pain in his throat wasn’t from over-singing. It was from tonsil cancer. The very rare diagnosis meant invasive surgery near his vocal cords and the threat of never singing again.

“That was scary,” Gilliland said, sitting in his choir room. “But I’m here. And do I still sing?”

“Yes,” shouts his class.

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“Every day,” Gilliland grins.

One of his seniors, Paige Wickard, heard about the WISH-TV Golden Apple Award and nominated “Mr. G,” as the students call him. She said he was the most influential teacher she’d ever met and due to his unique job teaching all grades, was having an equally powerful impact on an entire generation simultaneously.

“He’s always taught me to believe in myself and never get down on myself,” Wickard said. “He has boosted up my confidence.”

Wickard sat in an auditorium with three other students one afternoon in November, giggling as they faced a WISH-TV news camera to shine the spotlight on the man usually just seen from behind.

“To me, Mr. G is so much more than just a choir teacher. He is hands down the most devoted and strongest person I know,” said Arielle Lucas, an 8th grader.

“Mr. G has been an inspiration for me since elementary school,” said Lexi Spoon, a freshman. “He is one of my biggest role models.”

“He is just an amazing person and an even better teacher,” said Tyla Spoon, a senior.

The students said Mr. Gilliland doesn’t have children of his own, so he treats them like his children. They added that sometimes includes some “Dad jokes.”

“He’s really funny. He makes a lot of jokes,” said Tyla Spoon, then considered.”Some of them aren’t that funny but they’re likely funny when he was young so we all just laugh and play along with those as well.”

The four students also told us about Mr. Gilliland’s health struggles, saying he doesn’t broadcast the story but will answer questions about the large scar on his neck. They say they’ve taken a lesson from his resilience.

“He loves singing. He’s not going to quit. He’s not going to let cancer stop him,” said Wickard.

“It just shows how much he cares. Even if he is struggling personally, he always makes sure we didn’t have to struggle with our choir,” said Tyla Spoon.

“He’s always smiling. Always,” said Lucas.

“He’s amazing. He’s just amazing. His wife, too. Him and his wife: they’re perfect,” said Lexi Spoon.

So when our cameras burst into Mr. G’s choir classroom this month, we knew it had to our own kind of “surprise symphony.”

A group of his seniors entered first, singing a harmonized round of the word “surprise.” Unsurprisingly, Mr. Gilliland was in the back of the classroom helping a student.

At first, he didn’t believe what was happening.

“And I did what to deserve such an honor,” he said incredulously into the camera.

When Bailey Wood from Bailey & Wood Mortgage told him he had won a $500 as part of the award, his mouth stayed open.

“For the school right?” he asked.

“No, for you,” assured Wood.

“Really? Nobody’s pulling my leg here? It’s not April Fool’s Day?” he said as the classroom erupted in cheers.

News 8’s Brenna Donnelly showed him the nomination video of his students “singing his praises,” and asked what educating students means to him.

“You’re really happy when they succeed because you think deep down maybe a little bit, I had an impact,” said Gilliland, “and I think that’s every teacher’s dream.”

Watch the full nomination video here: