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Source: NMHS Newsletter Aug 1995

My Blessing

By Allen Willmert

Sadie Irene Stutsman Wampler was committed to teaching students more than course content and to undertaking sometimes elaborate dramatic productions, both at Manchester College and in the North Manchester community, primarily in her church, the Walnut Street Church of the Brethren. The two foci were integrally related, for every classroom lecture was a demonstration of stage presence and the persuasive power of the human voice, and every drama was chosen and directed with the intent of molding character in her students, and of teaching the power of controlled human emotions to effect change in one's view of life and its meaning. For forty-seven years, from 1905 to 1952, this remarkable woman challenged, guided and shaped the lives of hundreds ofstudents--some of them without their perceiving it until they had bumped against life beyond the classroom or stage.
The character and personality of Sadie might be described as a model of virtuous paradoxes. She was at once a fearless free spirit but an unwavering follower of The Faith. Creative and perceptively innovative herself, she was careful to encourage creativity in her students. Though demanding as a professor and director, she was herself a tireless teacher and worker. She preached the James-Lange theory of emotions to students and cast members, but dismissed psychoanalysts as presumptuous and self-deceptive, if not self-serving--and this decades before the recent women's movement against male-dominated psychological and social theory. In verbal exchange, she could be forceful but fraternal, caustic but kind--and she could speak volumes with silence. She was often uncompromisingly blunt in expressing her feelings or in stating her opinion, but she never made an enemy.
Sadie applied her talents in art, music, oral reading and drama with boundless energy, undaunted determination and unquestioned commitment of time to every challenge for which she accepted responsibility. In his 1963 eulogy, Vernon F. Schwalm, then president of Manchester College, used these phrases: tall and strong; great and successful teacher; dedicated loyalty and devotion; woman of driving purposes and tremendous will power; unafraid of hard work and mammoth undertakings. Contrast these accolades with Sadie's own self-effacing workds in a sketch she supplied at Dr. Schwalm's request shortly after her retirement:
"I assure you I feel very unworthy of any special honor from the Church. 'Tis little enough I've ever been worth to the College. But it is because of my close connections with both that I have been especially blessed. . ." While undoubtedly an accomplished and productive person, she was not lacking in humility.
Sadie always considered herself a teacher first and foremost. It is ironic, therefore, that she is more often remembered for her dramatic productions than for her performance in class. But it is also understandable, for many more persons experienced the plays and pageants than enrolled in her courses. It is probably correct that her major plays drew eighty per cent or more of the campus community for the quarter-century from 1920 to 1945. Sadie was aware of this and considered even the dramas and pageants as teaching activities, not just for those majoring in her fields of Expression, and English Literature, but for all who might be moved by the wisdom, truth, or principle almost always present in the plays she selected. As early Greek dramatists and Shakespeare often used the great themes of love and hate, glory and decay, truth and calumny, injustice and revenge, justice and peace, many modern playwrights also address these universal experiences of humankind.
Sadie never chose badly written plays for production; whether comedy, tragedy, or a serious mixture of the two, the play had to have a well-motivated plot, believable development, dramatic incident, and--if possible--a useful lesson to be learned. Why? Because she felt compelled to educate the audience by demonstrating good drama, effective speech, dramatic communication, and often--by pressing home a moral or ethical point--encouraging a weak faith, or declaring a spiritual truth. To these ends, Sadie read hundreds of plays, old and new, and kept a file of those that might be considered for production. For each drama that met her standards and approval, she recorded the bibliographic data, cost and royalty, theme, plot sketch, and requirements for casting and stage management.
In a twelve-week quarter, Sadie's "Play Production" students were required to read fifty plays and start similar files for themselves. In addition, each had to attend six plays produced by area high schools and write a detailed critique of each production. Along with Dolman's textbook on play production and a bibliography of other readings these course requirements assured a relatively small class enrollment but also enabled greater personal contact for each student with a master teacher and experienced drama director.
A brief scan of the course requirements for Sadie's class "Shakespeare's Tragedies" in the winter quarter of 1932-33, will show one that she would be considered an impossibly demanding professor by most of today's students--and not a few of today's professors. Ninety per cent of the final examination for Sadie's spring quarter course in "Literary Interpretation" in1951 required the student to write out answers of varying length. She wanted the students to demonstrate to her what they had learned in her class.
One bit of foreshadowing of Sadie's greatness as a teacher of more than just subject matter may be gleaned from her statement in the College Catalog for 1913-14 setting forth the purpose of the Expression and Oratory Department:
"This department aims to give practical instruction in Oral Reading, and (to) help the student interpret and appreciate literature. The effort is made to correct the faults in the every-day speech of the student as well as to prepare him for speaking.
Personal instruction is given according to the needs of the student. Instruction is given in the proper use of the voice, the body, the position of the arms, the feet, and facial expression. He who speaks clearly and pleasantly, quietly and calmly, is also learning to think calmly and deliberately."
Dr. Lloyd M. Hoff's tribute to Sadie at her retirement in 1952 attests her teaching via the direction and production of dramas and pageants as well as in the classroom:
Mrs. Wampler conducted not only great plays but good plays. She had a philosophy of trying to aid in the social adjustment of the student. The easiest thing for a coach to do is select the most likely person to do the thing that comes most naturally to him. But Mrs. Wampler insisted that the shy student ought to play a dashing part; or the over-bearing student ought to play a reserved, submerged part. Sometimes an obscure, off-campus student, little known by his classmates, was given a chance to win recognition and laurels.
Mrs. Wampler was a perfectionist, to all intents and purposes, yet she had that rare wisdom and grace to know whan an actor was giving his best and to be willing to accept his best without breaking his spirit, even though his achievement might fall short of the goal she had set.
However, good teaching for Sadie meant helping students to emerge at a higher level than they entered. Delta Dean (Doran) Schutz recalls one occasion in a class when a young man had delivered a rather histrionic speech but with quite acceptable content. When he was finished, Sadie waited a few moments and then said very slowly: "Very fine. Clap, clap, clap." But then she constructively pointed out how he might give the same speech without incurring the danger of being laughed off the platform.
While Sadie had been teaching for seven years before the first issue of OAK LEAVES was published as a number of the MANCHESTER COLLEGE BULLETIN in the spring of 1913, it is possible to see the gradual growth of her earliest endeavors in interpretative reading--then called elocution or expression--through news items in both of these College publications. Sadie helped the early growth of PHILOMATHEA, one of several literary and philosophical societies, and was its sponsor during most of its lifetime. She was also an advisor to the campus Y.W.C.A. Both of these organizations held regular meetings with programs for the edification and entertainment of the members. Such programs afforded opportunities for Sadie's expression students to give readings outside the classroom.
Soon she was costuming some of them for more entertaining presentations, and before long dramatic readings moved into dramatic dialogues, and occasionally pageantry, incorporating a little music and staging. Brief plays were not far behind, and then she cajoled some of the other faculty into producing a number of full-length plays for the entertainment of the entire student body, no doubt to show the students what might be possible for their own future endeavors.
Sadie's expression majors were required, as a sort of thesis before being graduated, to prepare a cutting of an entire book and to present it before the entire faculty, all of the expression students and some few invited guests. It was to be a sixty-to-ninety-minute program, each one scheduled on a different night and presented in two parts with an intermission for which the student also had to enlist entertainers to sing or give readings which fit the theme of the main part of the program. The programs, sometimes called recitals, were somewhat similar to the senior recital for music majors.
On April 7, 1922, the Civic and Oratorical League of Manchester College, under the direction of Sadie, presented the profoundly moving drama by Charles Rann Kennedy, THE SERVANT IN THE HOUSE. That production proved to be the first of four occasions when Sadie would choose this play that eminently fulfilled her ideal of great drama. It was given again by alumni on May 31, 1924, with two performances, one in the afternoon, and raised $200 toward the debt on The College Chime. Nine years later the Play Production class gave it at Commencement time; and in March 1947, Tri Alpha presented it with David Waas in the title role of Manson; Ed Butterbaugh, the Acting College President in 1993-94, as Robert Smith, "a gentleman of necessary occupation", and Gilbert Weldy as The Vicar.
The 1947 production of SERVANT IN THE HOUSE demonstrated Sadie's astonishing resourcefulness. The College's old gymnasium was not an ideal stage for drama except for the spacious backstage area it afforded. The height of the grand drape called for scenery flats sixteen feet high, and voices tended to be trapped in the flies. When Sadie wished not to paint the flats a dark color--which would have been dificult to lighten again--but also wished to have a set of dark wood paneling for the rectory set in "Servant," she dyed brown many pieces of a thin muslin, stitched them together, and directed the crew to stretch this material over the flats and to create a three-dimensional Gothic paneling effect using crayons of a darker brown and purple. Hours of work were required, but the effect was convincing and later removal of the cloth was quite simple. Scores of times this creative genius, Sadie Wampler, was able to make something both appropriate and beautiful out of almost nothing, whether sets or costumes or properties.
Already in 1922, Sadie outfitted the Choral Society of 80 persons in costumes designed for the cantata, RUTH, The MOABITESS, by J. Astor Broad. Once having made costumes for various productions, she would always preserve them for possible future use. When she retired there were more than a thousand costumes in the Administration Building basement, from the mail room west to the office of the History Department. In 1948, the wardrobe racks were so crowded that nearly every item selected needed immediate pressing to determine whether it could be used. In addition to dresses, suits, coats,hats and shoes, there were uniforms and accessories of all kinds as well as props such as fans, eyeglasses, canes, timepieces, etc. Unfortunately, the want of any interested person to care for the collections, together with the need for more office space, led to their destruction some time after 1953. One would hope that it was after Sadie's death, or that she never knew about it.
It is impossible to do justice to Sadie's perceptions of how best to bring the most dramatic effect out of spoken lines or from movements on the stage. Her artist's sense of form and balance not only aided her in creating sets, but to block action so that set, furnishings and players always presented a pleasing arrangement. A photograph taken at almost any point during a play would show the same kind of interest and balance that a painting should have.
And her studied command of the capabilities of the human voice and of its effectiveness in adding depth of emotion and meaning to the spoken lines enabled her to draw superior performances from average students. She could accept and discuss a player's disagreement with her advice, but she was usually right and usually able to convince the other person. She often planned two performances with total or partial double-casting. This was undoubtedly extra work for her, for it meant twice as many rehearsals in many cases; but it enabled more students to play a part and learn from the experience. It also had the very practical potential of providing back-up performers in case of sickness.
At one time in its history, her Church of the Brethren forbade musical instruments of any kind in the sanctuary and only gradually accepted the piano as a helpful tool in worship. In one of her productions, Sadie wanted very much to have Lloyd Hoff play the violin for an especially moving effect but was refused permission to bring the instrument in. So she quietly arranged for Dr. Hoff to stand in the hall outside the balcony seating so that the soft strains of the violin might come through the open doorway.
When David Waas played Manson in "Servant," Mary Emma (Miller) Coe played an Anglican rector's young niece. In one scene, Sadie wanted her to jump up and perch on the piano, but there was a problem of immodesty which made it unacceptable. Nevertheless, Sadie still wished to have that bit of exuberant action. Finally, Mary Emma suggested that she could wear slacks in that scene. Now, even at that late date slacks and shorts on young ladies were not acceptable to many Brethren except in physical education classes. Sadie demurred, but only briefly before deciding to allow the slacks in the scene.
These two occasions illustrate a tension that Sadie must have felt often between loyalty to her Church and devotion to grace and beauty in producing drama that had the potential of helping to transform society by inspiring individuals. On other matters, such as use of profanity and the evils of smoking drinking, and infidelity, Sadie was unequivocal and sometimes dogmatic. She always eliminated profanity from the scripts. She felt thatin real life it merely demonstrated a paucity of vocabulary and was certainly unnecessary in most cases to the essential progress of a play. Only occasionally would she allow an isolated instance of gutter language when it seemed important to full characterization. Her sense was that the audience was smart enough to hear it once and understand the proper recognition of the part without having their ears and souls bombarded with language they abhored. Once in the late 1940's, the Fort Wayne Civic Theatre was contracted to bring an entire production of BLYTHE SPIRIT for a performance on campus. After the first scene, which had had too much profanity for Sadie to take, she either went backstage herself, or more likely sent someone back, to demand that the rest of the performance be purged of it--and it was!
The Tri Alpha (Drama) club room in the last years of Sadie's reign was directly under the large room of the College business office and was painted black, both walls and ceiling. The east end of the room was used as a small stage. It was here that initiates were brought into membership. One person recalls that when he entered at the appointed time, the unlighted room, but for a dim pink bulb in one corner, seemed nearly filled with figures milling around, dark hoods over their heads like mummers, chanting slowly: "The play's the thing, the play's the thing, the play's the thing..." "I was quite aware," he said, "when a stooping figure with a deep throaty voice uttered the words not a foot from my ear, that I was in the presence of Sadie Wampler. Only later did I realize that I had been in the presence of greatness."