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Tiffany Shackelford, 46, was known as a unique, fun ‘force’ to friends, family

Tiffany Shackelford, of Alexandria, on a family trip to Alaska.
Tiffany Shackelford, of Alexandria, on a family trip to Alaska. (Family photo)
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Tiffany Shackelford had a unique, fun style that her friends and family members said reflected her bright personality, sense of humor and love of helping others to connect.

She often wore big rings, chunky necklaces, brightly colored scarves and tops, always paired with classic black pants.

A 46-year-old media and design executive who lived in Alexandria, Shackelford died Dec. 27 of complications related to the coronavirus. She left behind a husband and their 9-year-old son.

After her death, her husband and son put some of her favorite items in the room where she did yoga. Perfume bottles stand next to bright scarves, her jewelry box and the urn with her ashes — all sitting on an antique table that belonged to her parents.

Her son, Sam, calls it “the memory room.”

“I’m devastated,” said Aaron Castelo, 51, Shackelford’s husband. “It happened so quickly and unexpectedly.”

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An only child, Shackelford was born in Jacksonville, Fla. Her mother was an artist and elementary school teacher and her father was in the Navy. They moved around when she was a child before settling in Fairfax County in the 1980s.

Shackelford graduated from West Potomac High School in 1992 and earned a degree in poetry four years later from East Carolina University.

Her career mixed news publications with public policy, state politics and digital technology, according to her colleagues.

She started working as assistant managing editor of Stateline, a news site that covers trends in state politics, and she went on to become the chief strategy officer and communications director for the National Governors Association.

Shackelford was known for being “part tech geek, part journalist and part policy wonk,” said her longtime friend Barb Rosewicz, the director of Fiscal 50, a project of the Pew Charitable Trusts.

“She didn’t just specialize in just one,” Rosewicz said. “She merged them and bridged those worlds.”

Shackelford was involved in several professional organizations, including the Association of Alternative Newsmedia and the Online News Association. She helped found and later served as executive director of Capitolbeat, which provided training and support to statehouse editors and reporters.

Most recently, Shackelford worked as executive director of the Society for News Design — a group for media professionals who work in graphic and Web design. Since last year, she also had been working on a project with the USC Annenberg School of Communication to teach state election officials how to improve cybersecurity.

“She enjoyed connecting people and you could see her love in helping others,” said Matt Mansfield, a partner at a D.C.-based consulting firm who worked with Shackelford and became a family friend.

“She would talk to someone and they’d say something they needed in their business and she’d say, ‘Oh, I know someone. Let me help you.’ ”

Shackelford was known for having a “sly smile, wrapped in a bawdy sense of humor,” according to an online tribute.

Her longtime friend Catherine Wigginton, 43, of D.C. said Shackelford was a natural storyteller who liked to drink bourbon and was known in her professional — and personal — lives for being “funny, irreverent, smart and outrageous.”

“She was just a force,” Wigginton said.

After her parents died, Shackelford made her close-knit group of friends her “village,” Wigginton said. She would invite friends for Thanksgiving and Easter dinners at her home, which is decorated with a mix of artwork by her mother and friends, plus a few posters of the Grateful Dead, one of her favorite bands. She would sometimes get guests to play croquet at Easter celebrations — a nod to one of her favorite movies, “Heathers.”

Shackelford met Castelo, a lobbyist, at a party, and the two married in 2006.

Her friends and husband said Shackelford was happiest when she was talking about — or with — her son. She reveled in watching him learn and grow, and shared stories with friends of how he liked playing baseball, took up bass guitar lessons and was interested in history.

Shackelford and Sam loved collecting seashells on walks at their family vacation home in Atlantic Beach, N.C.

“She loved seeing who he was becoming,” Wigginton said. “She was delighted by him.”

In August, Shackelford was sick with cold-like symptoms and a fever, Castelo said. She tested negative for the coronavirus and so did her husband and their son. But then Shackelford got sick again.

Three days before Christmas, her husband said Shackelford started to have “cold-like symptoms” and “just wasn’t feeling good.” On Christmas Day, she said she was tired and went back to bed. She had no fever.

“We just didn’t think it was covid,” her husband said.

She developed a cough the day after Christmas, so the following day they planned to see a doctor. That morning, she went to take a shower. Castelo heard a “loud noise” and raced to find his wife had fallen.

He called 911 and paramedics arrived. She was taken to a hospital in cardiac arrest.

EMTs told Castelo that she was stabilized and would soon be taken to the intensive care unit, but a doctor came in 15 minutes later and “told me she had died,” Castelo said.

His first thought, he recalled, was: “Oh, my God. I’m going to have to tell Sam.”

A friend had taken their son when Shackelford became ill. Castelo left the hospital, picked up his son and took him to a nearby garden area. He sat him on a bench and “just told him.”

“It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” Castelo said.

Castelo soon tested positive for the coronavirus. His son tested negative. A babysitter took care of Sam in the family home while Castelo was in isolation, and the father and son used walkie-talkies to communicate.

Of his wife’s illness, Castelo said, “we have no idea how this happened.” Other than running errands, they rarely left the house and never ate inside a restaurant during the pandemic. Both had been working from home and their son was in online schooling.

“I have a hard time grasping how this was fatal for Tiffany and for me it felt like a bad sinus infection,” Castelo said.

He continued: “You sit and watch the numbers on CNN at night,” he said of coronavirus victims, “and you think, ‘That’s other people.’ We were doing everything we could to be safe.”

At her memorial service, only nine people were allowed at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, the same place in Alexandria where her parents’ funerals had been years ago. About 50 other people sat in their cars in the church’s parking lot, listening to the service on a low-frequency radio station.

Her husband read a speech he had found in their attic after Shackelford’s death. She had written it after graduating from high school and read it to her church’s congregation.

Shackelford had quoted from the song “Life Is a Highway”: “Life’s like a road that you travel on /When there’s one day here and the next day gone. /Sometimes you bend, sometimes you stand. /Sometimes you turn your back to the wind.”

As the closing lines, she added: “Life is like a highway. We’ve got to journey on.”