My freshman year of college I tried out for a play - some sad thing or another that I had never heard of. I had taken drama in the ninth grade but was not anything like what you would call an actor. As with everything I've ever done in my life I was trying out for this one because of a girl. I had met her recently and we were getting chummy and she wanted to be in the production and so I wanted to be in it. I didn't get the part, but she did so I spent my evening hanging out at the theatre watching rehearsals. She played a very old lady and I learned how to do her makeup and then I learned a few more things and became an important part of the backstage process.
Ditto with that year's homecoming musical. Also the Christmas dinner. And whatever we did in the Spring. My sophomore year I was there official like with the work-study program.
I went to a small liberal arts college with a tiny theatre program so there was only one director, a man named Stephen Elrod. It was more of a community theatre than a proper university department. There were only a few theatre majors, and a few other students who regularly performed, the rest came from other colleges, high schools and the occasional bored adult. I worked there until I graduated and thus I become something of a fixture.
For the big musicals I was often called to be a part of the chorus or a dancer or whatever was needed - a warm body to fill the stage (or in the case of one musical, a cold body as I played a corpse.) It was always funny to me that the only time I actually auditioned for a part I didn't get it and yet several times a year though I never made a request or auditioned I wound up playing all sorts of characters.
When there wasn't a show going on things were slow. Stephen never had a class before 9:30 and often there wasn't one until the afternoon. I was scheduled to work at 8 but since he wouldn't arrive until later I generally crawled back to one of the green rooms, laid down on a couch and napped. Or I'd walk over to the computer lab next door and play games. I'd keep an eye out the window looking for his truck and when I found it I'd rush back and pretend I was backstage or something, doing some kind of work. If he caught on to my ruse he never said, likely he didn't care. He allowed me to goof off during the slow times for he knew once a show started I'd be working long, extra hours. I did, too. In the summers we'd run three shows back to back to back and I'd work from early in the morning until late in the evening.
I didn't mind though. Some of the best times in my life I had right there in the theatre, with Stephen by my side. We developed a sort of language together, a communication that we each understood that might not make sense to outsiders. This usually involved Stephen yelling "Brewster!" at the top of his lungs from the other side of the building and me running to his aid. As I was actually getting paid to work there I think he figured he could abuse me even more than the majors and other theatre bums. But I loved it for I knew underneath all the yelling was a kind and generous man.
One morning he sent me to the local video store to grab a movie he needed for his class. I returned with the flick and sat in the box office while he and his students watched the film. Somewhere in the middle of that I heard Stephen's booming voice - "Brewster" he bellowed "make it letterbox!" Apparently the VHS I had rented was of the pan and scan variety and some vital scene looked poor due to the cutting of the image. I think he actually though I could convert it too. Such was his faith in my abilities. For years after that it was a common request around the theatre, that when something impossible was needed I was supposed to make it letterboxed.
After a performance the cast and crew would often head to a restaurant for food, laughs and winding down. I was but a poor college student so I could never afford a meal, but learned to be patient and wait for others to get full and let me have the leftovers. Stephen was always generous with his plate and would let me grab a bit here and there. Other times on a spare Saturday he'd have me over for breakfast. His generosity knew know bounds. He was more than a teacher or a boss. He was a friend. A mentor.
We haven't talked in years. After graduation I left Montgomery and Alabama and as life does, it moved on. He left Montgomery a few years later so whenever I visited my alma mater he wasn't there. I found him on Facebook a couple of years ago and we exchanged a few messages and chatted once, but it was awkward and we didn't have anything to say. Or rather we had too much too say but didn't have the space or the time or the ability to say it. I kept thinking I'd give him a call sometime and we'd catch up and laugh. Or maybe I'd drive down to Birmingham and spend the weekend with him.
Last Tuesday someone uploaded a picture of him and I nearly left a comment about his receding hairline. He used to have such glorious hair. But I stopped myself for some reason and carried on. Moments later an old college friend, seemingly out of the blue, messaged me. She wanted to know if I'd heard the news, and when I answered in the negative she told me the bad news. Stephen was dead. He went to work that morning the very picture of health, put in a full day, came home and died.
I can't help but think of all the time I meant to call, or write, or visit. There are so many things I wanted to tell him about how he shaped me, made me a better man, or about how truly he was the greatest teacher I ever knew. Now I can't. It is too late. How very sad that makes me.
As these things happen now his Facebook wall is being filled up with messages from family, friends and hundreds of lives he touched over the years. I read messages from old friends, from others I haven't thought of in years and post after post from people I don't know but that knew Stephen and loved him.
As did I.
God bless you, Stephen Elrod. I miss you. If heaven isn't letterboxed, you know who to call.