When a senior class president and a TV actor came together to spread a message of hope

Actor John Wesley Shipp accepted Sallie Bowman's invitation to speak at her 1999 Wake Forest-Rolesville High graduation

Sallie Bowman discusses her 1999 high school commencement speech invitation to John Wesley Shipp.
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Sallie Bowman discusses her 1999 high school commencement speech invitation to John Wesley Shipp.

As May 1999 rolled into June, Sallie Bowman – then known as Sallie Hedrick – was putting the finishing touches on her big, bold idea for Wake Forest-Rolesville High School’s commencement ceremony.

It had been a tense spring. On April 20 of that year, two teens at a Columbine, Colo., high school had massacred a dozen other students and one teacher. In the ensuing environment of shock and grief, copycats of this early school shooting began calling in bomb threats to schools nationwide. Bowman and students like her were on edge: would their school be the next Columbine? She was class president of Wake Forest-Rolesville High, graduation was her show, and she wanted it to broadcast a message of hope.

Thousands of miles west, John Wesley Shipp, one of the stars of the hit teen drama “Dawson’s Creek,” was stewing in a hotel room in rainy Vancouver. He’d accepted Bowman’s invitation to speak at the commencement in Wake Forest. He needed to catch his flight to North Carolina, but the producers of a movie he was filming were stalling.

“I had a scene to shoot that evening, and I let them know I was walking,” Shipp recalls.

Bowman and Shipp had something in common. They’d both been teenagers in the same town, 30 years apart.

Sallie Bowman and actor John Wesley Shipp at her graduation party in 1999. Bowman, who was senior class president of Wake Forest-Rolesville High in 1999, invited Shipp to give the commencement speech. Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

As a high school freshman in 1969, Shipp had stood up to racism and violence in Wake Forest. Now, in 1999, Bowman was finding her own way to pick others up in frightening times.

On June 5, 1999, their lives intersected. Now, years later, Bowman and Shipp are still processing that long-ago weekend that remains with them both.

An offer to speak

“I felt like everyone needed something to cling to, this idea of hope and what can we do to make the world a better place,” says Bowman. “I bet this guy, he can say something, especially because [Shipp was] on ‘Dawson’s Creek,’ which everyone was watching.”

In 1969, a teenage Shipp and his older sister, Karen, had hosted an integrated Christmas party in Wake Forest. Someone shot up the Shipp family house that evening, firing 18 bullets into the home as the teenagers inside made popcorn. Nobody was hit, but a spray of buckshot shattered the picture window, while eight others lodged in the fireplace. The gunman or gunmen were never charged or even identified, but the message was crystal clear: get out of town.

Shipp’s father, known as J. Wesley, was a Baptist pastor who was fired from his area church after his children’s party. The siblings had the opportunity to move in with their grandparents in Norfolk, Va., but they refused to abandon their friends in Wake Forest.

Bowman had heard from a longtime town resident about what had happened in 1969, and she was inspired by teenage Shipp’s response to the racially motivated attack. So she contacted the actor and asked him to speak at her graduation.

Shipp found he could not refuse.

“I don’t think it really occurred to me what I was asking of you,” Bowman now tells Shipp. “These are the kinds of conversations people have with their psychiatrists, but then to say, ‘Why don’t you get out in front of 2,000 people?’ I don’t even think that went through my head.”

Their acting credits

It’s been 18 years since that graduation, and Shipp and Bowman are reminiscing via FaceTime. She’s in her little house on a quiet side street in downtown Youngsville, while her youngest child naps in his room. Shipp is in his New York City apartment, which commands an impressive view of the Manhattan skyline.

They had reconnected after a News & Observer story in July, when he was a featured guest at the Raleigh Supercon event.

John Wesley Shipp as Mitch, left, in “Dawson’s Creek.” THE WB/FRED NORRIS MEDIA TLP

These days, Shipp plays on the CW superhero series “The Flash” as an alternate reality version of the titular character. In the early ’80s, he played Kelly Nelson on the former soap opera “Guiding Light,” then also appeared on the soaps “As the World Turns” and “Santa Barbara.” (He won a Daytime Emmy Award for each.) He then played Dawson’s father, Mitch Leery, on the late-90s and early 2000s primetime drama “Dawson’s Creek,” at least until his character memorably died after dropping his ice cream cone while driving and wrecking his car. His current role in “The Flash” started as an homage to him playing that same superhero in a short-lived 1990 show of the same name.

When he’s not filming, Shipp travels to comic book conventions internationally to meet Flash fans.

Dressed as superheroes, cartoon characters and pop culture figures, thousands flocked to the Raleigh Convention Center on Friday, July 14, 2017, as the three-day Raleigh Supercon convention kicked off.

Bowman was active in theater and has some screen credits of her own, including a minor role in the film “Big Fish” and in two episodes of “Dawson’s Creek,” which mostly filmed in Wilmington. Though Shipp played a major character in that show, he and Bowman didn’t film on the same days. They didn’t even meet in person until shortly before commencement in June 1999.

After high school, Bowman thought she’d continue to act professionally. She went to Meredith College on a music scholarship, yet changed her mind a few years in. She’d been involved in theater for so long that college classes just felt redundant. She traveled during her summers, living in New York and Paris, and briefly sewed and sold tutus.

After a stint living in New York and trying the actor life again (it was a mistake, she says) she moved to Utah and worked for the Sundance Film Festival from 2005 to 2007. Then she came home and took a job at the N.C. Film Office, promoting her home state as a filming location. She misses it.

“I loved that job,” she says. “It was a really good fit for me.”

Sallie Bowman saved her 1999 letter inviting actor John Wesley Shipp to give the graduation speech at Wake Forest-Rolesville High, along with newspaper stories about the commencement and the key to the city presented to the family by then Wake Forest Mayor George Mackie. Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

Today she’s back in the Triangle. Her husband’s a teacher in the same school system she attended. Her son, Lachlan, is 2, while her 5-year-old daughter, Annabelle, just started kindergarten.

And now, after all this time, she and Shipp are chatting like old friends and realizing how much they have in common.

Two rebels

Bowman and Shipp were both class president their respective senior years of his school. He had finished freshman year at Wake Forest High before his family moved to Kentucky and he attended Butler High School in Louisville.

Both Bowman and Shipp tried to move their senior proms to a better venue. Bowman didn’t like the sound of Wake Forest-Rolesville’s prom ’99 happening in some rural hall with soda machines and wanted to move it into a more dignified room in Raleigh. She didn’t get her way, so she skipped prom. (“You’re a rebel,” Shipp declares. “I love it.”) Bowman had been pretty vocal about the whole affair, and she had just been in the principal’s office a few weeks before graduation, where she’d been told she needed to tone it down.

And then she went and invited Shipp, star of one of the major shows of that era, to speak at her commencement, an event where keynote speakers are rare to this day. Then-principal Andre Smith told her Shipp had just three minutes to speak, but Shipp didn’t find out about that time limit until summer 2017.

“I said, ‘Take as long as you want,’” Bowman says. “And thank God he did, because it turned out to be a very powerful message that I don’t think could have been accomplished in three minutes.”

Indeed, Shipp spoke for about 25 minutes. He told the story of the Christmas party in 1969 and encouraged the graduating class of 1999 to choose acceptance over racism, homophobia and violence.

“If tolerance is the best we can do in this moment, then by all means let’s be tolerant,” he told the crowd at the ceremony at Raleigh’s Memorial Auditorium that evening. “But by stopping there, by merely tolerating each other, we miss so much.”

Yet graduation was only the beginning. The entire Shipp family received closure and reconciliation that weekend, three decades after being run out of town.

Wake Forest Mayor George Mackie, left, presents an antique house key to the Shipp family, from left, J. Wesley, Shirley, Karen and John Wesley during a church service at Wake Forest Baptist Church in 1999. 1999 News & Observer File Photo newsobserver.com

Shipp’s sister and parents had come to the Triangle to watch John speak, and they attended Bowman’s graduation party in Wake Forest at her family’s invitation. That same weekend, Wake Forest Mayor George Mackie publicly apologized to Shipp’s parents.

“From now on, you and your family will always be members of this community,” Mackie said to the Shipps during a Sunday service at Wake Forest Baptist Church.

“The key [to the city], he gave to Mom, which was so perfect,” says Shipp, noting that his mother had borne an incredible amount of stress during those tough years.

“My dad, he would go through these periods of self-doubt,” Shipp continues. “We’d do something that was controversial or that wasn’t welcomed by everybody and he’d go, ‘Well, Shirley, our parents cursed us with ethics and we passed it on to our children.’”

‘Very affirming’

The weekend instilled Bowman with confidence. She felt empowered, and she wanted to feel that way again. Looking back, Bowman is proud of what she achieved.

“They say that throughout someone’s lifetime there are maybe four or five major decisions that change a course of a person’s life, but really that weekend and seeing that through from idea to production is one of my fondest memories,” she says. “You look back at your younger self and a lot of times you think, all the stupid stuff I did or all the stuff I could have done better or differently. And then this is very affirming.”

After commencement weekend, Shipp flew back to Vancouver and was immediately swept back up in his work. He didn’t really have time to think.

He and Bowman kept in touch for a few years after commencement, but eventually drifted apart. He had his work as an actor, and she was moving through college and into early adulthood.

Yet when they reconnected in summer 2017, they marveled at what they achieved together one weekend in 1999.

“It’s almost like I’m processing it now in hindsight,” Shipp admits, recalling a famous quote about life being lived forward but understood backward. “Who said that?”

“I think that’s Kierkegaard,” Bowman says, not even missing a beat.

And just like that, these two are on the same page again.