This is a monthly series introducing you to City employees and their stories.
Susan Shahan was doing some cleaning and dove in with equal parts trepidation, bravery and curiosity, into her husband’s closet.
“Do you realize you have over 500 T-shirts in here?” she said after a few minutes.
“No way,” he said before poking his head in. A quick count and he had to admit, “Dadgum, I do.”
So, perhaps, we can add packrat to the myriad descriptions of Huntsville Police (HPD) Sgt. Mark Shahan. The rest include dedicated volunteer, longest-serving uniformed member of the department, ex-motorcycle cop, monarch butterfly expert, practical joker, husband, father, uncle and special events guru.
Shahan, who’ll mark his 38th year in the department this June, is the traffic supervisor in the Special Operations Division of HPD. That puts him squarely into the mix for two things that can paralyze any city: A weather emergency and activities that can impact traffic flow. In 2016, there were 281 special events for which the City of Huntsville issued permits, all demanding the attention of Shahan and his officers.
“If there has been a special event somewhere in Huntsville, Mark Shahan’s fingerprints are probably on it,” says Chief Mark McMurray.
And, apparently, if there’s been a special event, it looks like he’s probably got the T-shirt.
A great number of those shirts are souvenirs from the same event, but for which he’s not working as Sgt. Shahan. Since the first Panoply in 1982, he has been a committee member for Panoply, the annual downtown arts festival (set for April 28-30). The first year, he worked on behalf of HPD. In the years since, Shahan has been a Panoply volunteer, taking a week’s vacation from his real job of security, traffic planning and people moving to, well, do his real job for free. Those are often dawn-to-midnight days for Shahan, so he makes sure to buy an extra T-shirt or two. No time for laundry.
“He’s the original Panoply volunteer. It’s hard to find someone who has volunteered for a community event since its inception,” says Allison Dillon-Jauken, executive director of ArtsHuntsville, which operates Panoply. “He’s the first volunteer in the park when we’re setting up and one of the last ones out of the park each night. Yes, he’s Sgt. Mark Shahan. But when we get into festival mode, he’s just part of the team.”
It’s not all work. If something somehow comes up hidden for a few minutes or if there’s a joke being played, “Chances are Mark Shahan is behind it,” Dillon-Jauken says.
“I like what it’s for. It’s for families and children. It’s the people. I enjoy going down there,” he says. “They ask me why do you do it, and I say, it’s like being at Disneyland. I’m going to have a good time.”
Many of the Panoply volunteers will populate their homes with purchases from various vendors, but Shahan, frankly, isn’t all that artsy. He just populates the closet with his T-shirts, a collection that Sue Shahan patiently lets grow, assuring her a special place in Wife Heaven.
They met Thanksgiving 2004 when she was visiting from Illinois, reuniting with a high school friend who was married to Shahan’s cousin. Immediately, “I saw her across the room and we started talking and cutting up,” he recalls.
Susan started the largest nursery in the U.S. in Illinois, helping to reclaim and restore prairie land before moving to Huntsville. The couple owns a farm in northern Illinois that they hope becomes designated as a preserve for monarch butterflies, which have become an endangered species.
Mark has a daughter, Megan, who is a nurse and he and Susan are raising his nine-year-old nephew Trent. And surely their Huntsville home must be a garden spot?
“No way,” he says. “I don’t have time for it.”
His path to Special Events has hopscotched throughout the Huntsville Police Department. A Huntsville native, Shahan joined the force after spending a year with the Madison County Sheriff’s Office. He briefly served as a motorcycle patrol officer when that program was briefly resurrected and has been “in traffic, on the SWAT team, the bomb team, back to patrol, back to traffic,” he says, ticking things off the list. “I went to traffic in 2002 and I’ve been there ever since.”
Just to make sure on some dates, Shahan reaches into his pocket for a reference aid. It’s a flip phone.
“Yes, this is an old phone,” he shrugs. “Everybody gets on me about it. I say, ‘Look, let me tell you something. This phone has gone through two full washer and dryer cycles. It’s fallen off the top of the car at 65 mph and still works. Can you say that about your phone?”