Alumni reunite to honor professor

Over the course of the St. Olaf Theater Department’s two-weekend run of Cabaret, the show’s cast enjoyed performing for a highly most recptive audience on the evening of Friday, April 15. That is the night when well over 80 alumni, as well as dozens of current students, all came to honor the play’s director, Assistant Professor of Theater Jeanne Willcoxon.

Willcoxon, who has taught at St. Olaf for the last decade, will not be returning next year and Cabaret was her final production at the college. Her longtime friend and colleague, Artist in Residence Dona Werner Freeman, organized a post-show celebration of Willcoxon’s work at St. Olaf on the Friday of the play’s second weekend.

In order to keep the event a surprise, Freeman reached out to Willcoxon’s former and current students via Facebook, informing them to either reserve their tickets for that night if they could, otherwise she would reserve one for them. Freeman ended up reserving 62 tickets and several more made their own arrangements with the box-office.

Willcoxon was, for the most part, kept in the dark about all these proceedings until the last minute, and was moved to tears upon seeing all the alumni that had come to see her play in its last weekend. She spent time catching up with former students outside of the Theater Building until it was time for the show to start. All the guests made their way to their reserved seats as Willcoxon watched from the back of the room.

The infectious energy from the earlier gathering spread to the performance as the cast of Cabaret was treated to its liveliest audience of the entire run.

The play ended with a standing ovation of extended length, and a reception followed downstairs. Attendees enjoyed punch, cake and other baked goods from the bakery owned by the parents of Cabaret star Ben Swenson-Klatt ’16.

Once the cast had emerged from the dressing rooms, Freeman stood up on a table to capture the attention of the crowded Theater Building basement. After saying a few words of her own, she introduced three current or former students from different eras of the department’s history to stand up and give their own speeches.

The first was Scotty Gunderson ’10, who presented a small notebook in which compiled multiple personal essays from Willcoxon’s former students on the topic of how they had been enabled “to go further” in their lives by what they had learned from her. Willcoxon unsuccessfully held back tears as Gunderson read several entries out loud.

Second was Andy Lindvall ’14, whose boisterous energy and personal stories kept the room alternating between tears and laughter.

Last of the three speakers was current student Jenna McKellips ’16, who had arranged a collection of letters from students praising Willcoxon earlier this year.

After these speeches, Willcoxon tried to say a few words, but her own joyful crying cut her remarks short.

The party then continued for a couple more hours until visitors slowly faded away, returning to their normal lives after this refreshing night of appreciation and human kindness.

“After flying to/from college over the last four years, it felt very fitting that I had collected just enough flight miles to make it back to St. Olaf for a weekend to celebrate our dear professor, Jeanne Willcoxon. To see so many alumni coming from all over the country, returning for one evening was incredible, and reinforced in my mind that Oles are a special group of people,” alumna Noelle McCabe ’15 said. “I am so thankful to have had Jeanne as a professor, director, and mentor, and continue to have her as a friend in my life.”

Although Willcoxon does not have a Facebook account, she posted the following message through another account on the “Celebrating Jeanne Willcoxon” Facebook page:

“Thank you all so much for a night I shall never forget. It has been a hard year for all of us in the Theater Department – seeing you all again brought back all of the reasons why this past decade has been so wonderful: the incredible students of St. Olaf and my incredible colleagues. I have been lucky indeed to have been a part of such a group of passionate, intelligent and talented people! … I love you all and will carry you in my heart forever!”