To lose both Steve and Doc in less than a week is quite a shock. Both were significant parts of my working life for about twenty years, a good deal of which overlapped. I’ve already talked a bit about Steve in my “special” blog post #219 about a week ago, but I don’t think I’ve ever talked about my relationship with Doc Loeffler, so I guess that it’s now time.
When I finished my Master’s degree from Indiana U in 1969, I got a job as Technical Director and occasional Scenic and/or Lighting Designer and very occasional Director with Theatre 65 — The Children’s Theatre of Evanston, IL. This historic theatre for children had been started by Winifred Ward, a professor of Theatre at Northwestern, in 1925 as a joint project between Northwestern’s School of Speech and Community Consolidated School District #65 in Evanston. Growing up in Evanston as I did, I remember attending their productions as a school kid, and participating as a cast member as I got a bit older. You see, a feature of their operations was always involvement of children; this was not a theatre for children to see productions by adults, it was a theatre FOR children. While adults (mostly young adults — high school & college students) were occasionally cast in adult roles in productions for older (middle school) audiences, the vast majority of the roles were cast from middle school auditionees and virtually all tech positions were filled by middle and/or high school kids. Anyway, by the time I worked there, the theatre had become almost completely operated by the school district, with fairly minimal involvement by Northwestern. It was because of this change that the name was changed from “The Children’s Theatre of Evanston” to “Theatre 65,” which most people assumed was chosen because of the school district number, but was really done because that was the year the change was made.
Anyway, as a newly minted MA in the fall of 1969, I needed a job in theatre and was lucky enough to be offered a position at Theatre 65, largely because of my experience with the Indiana Theatre Company, which I had been a member of while doing my Master’s course work. It wasn’t a great job, but Bonnie (I was married by that point) and I managed to (more or less) support ourselves and I liked the people I was working with and the theatre.
But, remember that I said that the theatre was, essentially, owned by the school district? When they lost a vote for an educational bond referendum (this first one which had EVER been lost) in the spring of 1971, I was told that we were going to try to save the children’s theatre, but I could not count on keeping my job. We DID save the theatre (sort of), but by the latter days of the summer, I was sure I had no continuing employment. So, I went to the conference of the American Educational Theatre Association in Chicago late that summer hoping to find some employment in educational theatre. In other words, I was hoping to find an employer who was as desperate to find someone with skills I could satisfy as I was to get a job. As I had expected, pickings were pretty slim, but there was this guy I met named Donald Loeffler from Western Carolina University, however, who had just lost both his TD/Designer and an Acting/Directing faculty member (who was the former TD’s wife) to other employment. This Loeffler guy had also just become the Department Head of the Speech and Theatre Department, so was relatively new to administration. And the job would be at this little school next to (essentially in) the Great Smoky Mountains. All in all, it didn’t seem promising, but it was educational theatre AND it was a job!
Doc was NOT stupid, however. He insisted that both Bonnie and I make at least a cursory visit to campus before I was offered the job, so we flew into Knoxville, where Doc picked us up and drove us to Cullowhee through the then brand new I-40 gorge. As I remember it, we stayed for a couple of nights at the Court Hill Inn, which I understand now had been Sylva’s first hospital, but was, at this time, a rather nice hotel with quite a good restaurant. The WCU campus wasn’t especially exciting, and the theatre wasn’t as large, or a well equipped as the spaces I had been using at the Children’s Theatre, but the people seemed nice and we figured we could at least survive for a year, or two.
Thus began an almost 43 year career at WCU. Yeah, there were a lot of limitations, but Doc hired good people and went out of his way to try to treat them right. He wanted a lot from you, so I was probably actually the subject of at least some “faculty abuse,” but we all worked pretty hard, including the students. And I have to say that those were “good” years. Doc gave us a great deal of freedom to teach our classes and do our production work as we saw fit and wasn’t always looking over our shoulder to make sure that we did things “his” way. He was always supportive and, I would say went out of his way to make sure our work was appreciated. He could get angry, but he was never unkind and we all loved him.
So, I started at Western in the fall of 1971 and, as I remember it, Doc finally retired about 1991 (the exact date eludes me). By then, it had been obvious for a while that he was having difficulties health-wise, but he was still in there doing what he could and always being supportive of faculty and students alike. If I’d been looking, I probably could have found a lot of reasons to leave over those years, but it would have been hard to have left Doc. He was a great deal more than just my boss. He was a mentor of sorts, a taskmaster, a colleague in the truest sense of the word. His love of the theatre and for his students was an inspiration and established a pattern which I tried to follow. I was aware of at least some of his failings, but I was much more aware of his strengths. Like Steve, he was one of a kind and I will miss him.
I have strong hopes that I won’t be interrupting the regular routine of these posts, yet again any time soon. My plan is to next post in a week, or so. I’ve got something in the works, but I’m still working on it. Suffice to say that it’s more like my usual oddball stuff.
In the meantime, once again, LLAP,
“Words are, in my not-so-humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic; capable of both inflicting injury, and remedying it.” ―Albus Dumbledore, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows