A teacher spotted Mike Shanks’ extraordinary artistic ability when the St. Thomas the Apostle parishioner was in eighth grade. “What you have, it’s not normal,” the photography instructor told him.
“He was the one who set the path for me because I struggled with school and academics, but art was my place, my refuge,” Shanks said. “Here was this guy who I appreciated and admired, who recognized that I had a gift and took time to foster that.”
Once in high school however, Shanks went in a different direction, setting aside art to become a football player instead. He was also very active in the youth group at his parish. Four years later, he was a walk-on at the University of Arizona, but a guidance counselor there signed him up for a drawing class after uncovering Shanks’ dormant artistic abilities and noting his continuing academic struggles. “You know you’re not going to play pro ball,” she told him. “If you hate the art class, it’ll just be an elective.”
Shanks recalled his first day with amusement. He was still an athlete at that point and found himself feeling a bit awkward mixed in with long-haired, Birkenstock-wearing art students.
“The first thing he had us do was look at our hand — we had 30 seconds to draw it,” Shanks said.
The professor walked about the classroom to begin critiquing and stopped immediately at Shanks’ easel. “I thought to myself, this is it. My first day is my last,” he said.
To his surprise and relief, the professor exclaimed over the drawing’s magnificence.
Not long after, Shanks landed an internship at what turned out to be the top place in town for aspiring graphic artists, boasting clients such as Audi and Volkswagen as well as cruise lines.
Shanks has spent the last two decades at the top of his field, designing everything from billboards to coffee makers to advertising campaigns and annual reports. The father of five young children has never wavered in his Catholic faith. The friendships forged during his involvement with a Catholic youth group during his high school years have stayed strong and he sees them as a gift from God. The large families and network of support that grew out of those years have continued to nurture his faith.
“God blessed us with friendships, the Holy Spirit and the Eucharist,” Shanks said. “God surrounded me with other good men to challenge me and help form me.”
Curiously, his nickname since junior high — even before the making of the film by the same name — has been Rudy. As in the movie, Shanks once dreamed of playing for Notre Dame, if only to be able to run through the tunnel in South Bend.
He and Rudy Ruettiger — the man from whom the film takes its name — became friends some years ago and speak with each other daily.
Shanks has used his artistic abilities to serve the pro-life cause, creating powerful videos for a pregnancy clinic in Tucson and other groups. He said the purpose of the videos is not to convey information, theological points or debate zingers.
“What I want to do is reach someone who is not faithful and show common ground that they can understand in their humanity,” Shanks said. “If you start to think about God during this, He’s got it from there.”
Faith in a nutshell:
My prayer is that the Lord would use me as an instrument to help people think. It’s not a theological conversation. I’m not trying to reach someone like Scott Hahn would.
What he loves about being Catholic:
I love that it’s the truth and I love its depth and beauty. I am armed with truth and facts and I love our faith.
Year of Faith:
I am out in the world, struggling with real life, but I love our faith, I love the Catholic Church. It is who I am. If there is one thing I am, it’s Catholic.
St. Thomas the Apostle
Speaker on chastity, creates videos for pro-life groups
If there’s one thing I want people to say about me when I’m gone, it’s that “He had a strong will, and his faith, which transformed his life, was the essence of who he was.”