I think we’ve all got examples of wonderful teachers that have shaped our lives or recognized something in us and shepherded us to not be afraid of the special gifts we carried. When you’ve found a teacher like that, it feels like you were meant to have them, that they are a gatekeeper, a guide to somewhere you were always meant to go. And it’s baffling to think that they’ve most likely influenced many more than just you. Mary Turner was one of those for me.
I met her during my sophomore year at Point Park University in her Theatre History class. She had an encyclopedic wealth of knowledge for just about anything, was a skilled dramaturge and costume designer and a sharp wit who demanded much from her students, but gave just as us much in return. And, if you knew her well, you could see that, although she may have seemed serious, she was quite often smirking and always ready to be surprised into laughter.
She had read a sketch that I wrote at some point and recognized something in me. So, she took me under her wing and encouraged me to find a way to perform that sketch on stage somewhere. She even researched a couple of outlets to possibly fulfill that goal. And she encouraged me to keep writing. I don’t think that sketch got performed anywhere for a while, but I did keep writing.
I only had Mary for that one class that one year. Soon after, she left Point Park and went to manage a theatre in her hometown in Delaware. I had her email address, but I didn’t have much contact with her until after I published my collection of short stories, Allister Cromley’s Fairweather Belle (Bedtime Stories For Grownups To Tell).
I sent out an email to just about every email address I had to let people know about the book. And Mary wrote back: “Shane, I couldn't be prouder of you if I tried.”
That meant a lot to me. She meant a lot to me. Life is funny that way. The amount of time you’ve spent with someone doesn't necessarily have anything to do with the impact they leave on you.
A year later, she wrote to me again. She said, “I've been following your progress with Allister Cromley and I am so very proud of you!! Nancy Chesney (sidenote: Nancy belongs in the same category of beloved teachers) and I were talking about you last month when we got together with some of your classmates for a reunion in Pittsburgh. She said, "That boy always had a party going on in his head. Who knew it was a whole book full of stories?" I had to agree with her.” She wrote further that she had seen that I had staged some live storytelling shows as fundraisers and invited me to bring a show to Smyrna, Delaware and perform at the theatre she had managed (she’d recently retired) to raise money to build a new library.
The committee she was working with footed the bill for me, two other performers and a musician. So, I got to bring Ruth (my love) and Paul Pakler & Mark August Spitznagel (two brothers from other mothers) with me on a magical little adventure that lasted all of a weekend, but breathed so much wonder and joy into my heart that it still fuels me to this day.
To start, the theatre was the Smyrna Opera House, a historic space that she and the Smyrna community had renovated back to the same pristine stage that Frederick Douglass and William Jennings Bryan spoke on. And you could feel their presence when you walked into the space. It felt like hallowed ground, like when you stepped on stage you stepped into something deep and resonant and bigger than you (but that you were a part of).
To get a chance to perform in that space with three of my most trusted and loved collaborators/friends was pure joy. And Mary orchestrated the whole thing. She acted as tour guide and showed us all around her hometown. We had a ball. An absolute ball. And I don’t remember what we all talked about with Mary over various car rides and dinners and lunches, but I remember we laughed a lot and learned a bunch and it all felt really enlightening – like in a perfect brunch sort of way where you feel completely nourished, but still have room for whatever dinner has in store.
Then, on the night of the show, my sister Sadie surprised me and drove up from Ohio to see the show. Mary had helped orchestrate that surprise, too.
The show went off without a hitch. I sometimes like to pretend I’m still in it. That’s how warm and wonderful and welcoming that space was. And Mary was behind the entire thing.
In the end, we said goodbye to Mary and thanked her as we all headed back to our homes: Ruth and I to California, Paul and Mark to New York and Sadie back to Ohio.
And that was the last time I saw Mary.
I had one class with Mary in college and she connected with me and inspired me and, a decade later, shared the magic of the Smyrna Opera House with me.
I know we didn’t talk often in between these experiences, Mary. But, you believed in me, supported me and seemed to swoop into my life at just the right times. So much so that, even if we had very little contact in those in-between times, I often felt your presence. And I’m sad that we won’t have another moment together, but I am so so so eternally grateful for the love and guidance you shared with me during your time here.
I’m sending much love to you and hope that you’re resting in the most peacefulness of peace.