"He brought something to Decatur, Indiana, that no one else could have. The community is so much better off for having had him there," said Ron Bittner, referring to Reid Erekson.
Reid and his wife, Evelyn, will finally and at long last be honored by Bellmont High School by placing their names on its theatre — a school theatre which is among the best in the country because onetime superintendent Gail Grabill had the foresight to hire Erekson to oversee its construction.
Honestly, few in the country — maybe the world — could have been more qualified.
A native of Utah and a graduate of the University of Utah, Erekson began his stage career as an actor in Hollywood. He spent time in a traveling theater group and in 1937 he joined the staff of the University of Minnesota as assistant professor of drama and radio.
In 1942, the family moved to Fort Wayne. Reid took over as director of the Civic Theater and taught speech at what is now IPFW. He was hired as director of sales training at Central Soya in 1950 and the family moved again, this time, and for the final time, to Decatur.
He retired from Soya (now Bunge North America) in 1970 — a huge piece of good fortune for the new school being built out where the old Bellmont race track once stood.
"Gail Grabill did a great thing," Bittner, the former Bellmont principal, said earlier this week from his retirement home in Iowa. "Reid had just retired from Central Soya and had gone on Social Security, so he could make just so much money (without cutting into his Social Security payment). So Grabill got him cheap ... and what a thing to have him. He was a great teacher; you know, he taught theatre at the University of Minnesota."
The new school theatre became Reid's "baby."
"I'll never forget. He got into an argument with the interior designer. She wanted to paint the cinder blocks. He wouldn't hear of it; that would fill them in and ruin the sound. Oh, they went 'round and 'round," Bittner laughs.
Erekson launched a community theatre group and Bittner took part in a large number of his plays. He also worked closely with him in his role as principal at BHS. Ron probably knew Reid Erekson as well as anyone outside the family.
"What a brilliant man; just a brilliant man," Bittner said. "And yet he was on everyone's level. He could get things out of you that you never knew you had. I am so glad they are doing this (putting the Erekson name on the theatre) for Reid and Evelyn. It is so deserved. They did a great service to this community."
A cherished experience
The guy from left field whose mug is seen above had the extreme good fortune to perform in one of Erekson's plays many moons ago. It was an experience to cherish forever.
The thing that is stuck deepest in the memory is how he was expected to be and wasn't; you know, the stereotypical theatre/movie director type: a little haughty, a lot dictatorial, short on patience, long on arrogance.
Reid Erekson was none of the above. Working with people who didn't know stage right from their markers on the floor, he was cordial, accommodating, patient — on everyone's level, as Bittner said.
And his partner for so many years, Evelyn, was as sweet and pleasant a person as one could want to be around.
They certainly deserved better than that tragic July 2 in 1990, when they were involved in a traffic accident. Evelyn died the next day and Reid a few weeks later. Now, thankfully, they were live forever at Erekson Memorial Theatre in Bellmont High School.
Meanwhile, the students and adults involved in this week's production of "The Phantom of the Opera" are heading toward those final, hectic hours before the curtain goes up.
Jeannie Smith, who's involved in all these plays, was asked if "Phantom" is any more difficult to do than other plays. "Every musical has its own guidelines, its own problems," she replied. "This one has different things, yes, but my husband (Rick) is truly amazing. He really is. We already have the chandelier flying (as of Monday)."
Rick is in charge of sets, as always, and has been called a master of his craft by more than a few people involved in BHS plays.
"I tell the kids, we are high school and we do things in our own context, but we do them right," Jeannie said. "We are probably further ahead then we've ever been (at this point). The sets are done and painted ... it's going well."