Lawrence “Larry” Shelton likes to say he’s still recovering from a very happy childhood.
While the South Burlington resident has dedicated his life to teaching psychology and child development, with 50 years at the University of Vermont, he does not credit his childhood with pushing him in that direction. Rather, he just wants to know how everything works and how it all fits together.
This year, Shelton retired from his position as program coordinator of the human development and family studies program at the university, following a vast career across a variety of fields, from psychology to mental health to natural sciences.
Growing up in a small Midwestern town, Shelton said that becoming a doctor “wasn’t in the cards” for him. His sights were set on becoming a minister or teacher. When he got into Harvard, he picked natural sciences as a multidisciplinary major — but calculus changed his plans.
“If I had used a different student to help me, I might have become a scientist,” he said. Instead, Shelton received his undergraduate degree in social relations and volunteered throughout school at psychiatric hospitals that led him to pursue a master’s and doctorate in child psychology from the University of Minnesota.
A lot of Shelton’s success across fields happened by “being opportunistic,” he said laughing. “Somebody would ask me to do something, because they couldn’t figure out anybody else to ask.”
While Shelton described his childhood as happy, he noted that an early family tragedy shaped him into a different person. His younger sister was born with an undiagnosed disability and died when she was seven years old. From age nine to 16, Shelton helped take care of her.
“That experience, I now realize, made me a very different type of man, and really fueled my interest,” he said.
What has kept him coming back to the classroom for 50-plus years?
“I love students, I love teaching, I love to talk, I love students who question, I love students who overcome challenges,” he said.
And, learning new things everyday — that has been one of the most rewarding pieces of his career.
Last month, the university awarded him the President’s Distinguished University Citizenship and Service Award, as well as the Jackie M. Gribbons Award for Extraordinary Service in the College of Education and Social Services. Throughout his career, Shelton has written and edited several books on child and adolescent development, including a bootcamp primer on psychologist Urie Bronfenbrenner.
While most retired people find time to relax, Shelton said he has a long to-do list, primarily focusing on composing his life’s work into a book. Or a few. The tentative bent, he described as: “how I graduated from a college I never heard of, earned a doctorate from the only graduate school I didn’t get into, and retired after 50 years at a job I turned down.”