How a personal tragedy shaped the path of the Howard County Historical Society's leader

For Howard Magazine

For Shawn Gladden, history adds a sense of purpose to life. The 43-year-old took the reins of the local historical society in 2013 after working at the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore.

Gladden, a West Friendship resident and father of two, shared how a personal tragedy helped lead him to this career, along with nine other insights into his background.

1. He played Little League with Ken Ulman.

Gladden was a typical Columbia kid whose family moved to Howard County when he was 5. Growing up, he played baseball with future County Executive Ken Ulman and became acquainted with Ian Kennedy, who now heads the Downtown Columbia Arts and Culture Commission.

“It’s satisfying to know that kids you grew up with are making their names here,” he says.

2. His sister was murdered.

Tara Gladden died at age 15 in 1993, and her killer was convicted on murder charges two years later. She was killed by a defendant in a statutory rape case, prosecutors alleged, to prevent her from testifying against him.

“I was 19, and her death devastated me and my family,” Gladden says. “Rebounding from that became a defining moment for me later in life.”

3. History adds meaning to his life.

Gladden says he felt aimless working in retail after college. The Towson University graduate decided to pursue a master’s degree in history and museum studies at George Mason University in Virginia “in order to do something more meaningful” and as a tribute to his sister after her life was cut short.

4. That passion runs in the family.

Gladden says his stepfather liked to take him to visit Civil War battlefield sites in places like Gettysburg, Pa., and Sharpsburg when he was a kid. The excursions made a strong impression: He went on to name his son Grant Lee Gladden after two Civil War generals.

5. He was a Howard Stern wannabe.

Gladden read the morning announcements over the speaker system at Wilde Lake High School, toeing the line between funny and outrageous, much like DJ Stern.

“I was a practical joker and got in trouble for a couple of pranks,” he says with a laugh, quickly adding that he also got straight A’s and took part in student government before graduating in 1992.

6. He’s a lifelong athlete.

He attended Virginia Wesleyan University and played on the school’s baseball team before transferring to the University of Maryland, College Park, and then transferring a second time to Towson University, where he played on the volleyball team. After college, he took part in doubles volleyball tournaments and played amateur baseball, and is now in a 35-and-over baseball league.

7. He’s addicted to hot sauce.

While working for a local homebuilding firm in the late 1990s, Gladden says, his Louisiana-born boss introduced him to Tabasco sauce and it became a “gateway drug” of sorts. His stance on hot sauce remains “the hotter, the better,” and he splashes it on foods from eggs to pizza. Horseradish is another favorite.

8. He’s a “Star Wars” nerd.

Gladden was mesmerized by “Star Wars” when he saw it in a movie theater in 1977 at age 4, and his allegiance to the iconic franchise has never wavered. He saw the latest installment, “The Last Jedi,” on the first day of its December release.

9. He listens to reggae.

Gladden has a “strong library of reggae music,” which, of course, includes Jamaican singer-songwriter Bob Marley. Alternative music of the ’80s, performed by such bands as Depeche Mode and Simple Minds, runs a close second.

10. England is calling him.

During a month-long summer fellowship in 2006 at the University of Cambridge, Gladden soaked up the country’s culture. He and a professor often went to a pub after class for a pint or two of Guinness.

“I felt very much at home there, and would love to go back,” he says.

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