There are moments in life that stay with you; defining moments that you look back on years later and say, “Ah-ha.”
My moment was when I was awarded the role of Sabrina in Jacksonville State University’s production of Sabrina Faire directed by Dr. Stephen J. Whitton. I say awarded because it was indeed a reward. It was the role of a life time; it was the crème-de-la-crème for my final year as a college actress. I was the ingénue, the sweetheart…for once I was the star. Or so it felt.
Dr. Stephen J. Whitton. The quintessential college professor is he. He is darling and dapper; quirky and eloquent. He loves the theatre, is passionate about English literature. He inspires. He mentors, he mold and he encourages. He also scared the be-Jesus out of me. Dr. Stephen J. Whitton he wrote on the chalkboard with a flourish and a resounding THUNK after punctuating his name. This was my first class with him. Since that day some 20 odd years ago and I’ve never called him anything else. And I never will call him anything else. Ever. To me he will always be Dr. Stephen J. Whitton. Always.
There are a lot of stories I could write about Dr. Stephen J. Whitton….lots of memories. Before taking his classes I played his much younger love interest and had to sit in his lap and run my fingers through his curly hair. The next semester I had him as an English professor and lamented to my peers that he didn’t even recognize me. Every Tuesday/Thursday I would whine and complain in the costume shop about not being recognized by this man, this hard-nosed professor who seemed determined to make my life miserable. One day He very publically corrected, much to my humiliation. He knew exactly who I was. On stage he was Steve. In class he was Dr. Stephen J. Whitton and I, Miss Hayes, was to remember that. And I did. We had a double life, this man and I. In the theatre world he was funny and amiable and easy going. In class…well…not so much.
I could write about the time I blurted out, “I don’t even know what that word means!” after he used the word, epiphany for the 4th or 5th time. Or I could talk about the time I misspelled woman in my mid-term blue book essay and he called me out on it, again very publically, and again, to my humiliation. The book slapped on my desk. I was anticipating praise because I think I used 2 of the little lined booklets. Instead I got, “If you ever, EVER misspell the word woman in my class I will fail you.” Probably a big deal since I believe the essay was about the women of literature that we had studied in his class. If I had time I would tell the tale about the time he had to read by story, A BRA-GINNING, at a literary night that I was unable to attend. There are plenty of stories about Dr. Stephen J. Whitton but this tale is about one particular event.
Our big spring production was going to be directed by the one and only Dr. Stephen J. Whitton that year. I auditioned. I got the part. And so our story begins. Dr. Stephen J. Whitton took his role as director very seriously. He was meticulous. Every detail was crafted carefully to weave the story for the audience. Oh how I loved working with and for him. He pushed and pushed and made you dig deep to really find your character. He also praised warmly when a job was well done and treated each of us as the characters we played. He immersed us in each moment. The songs, the lighting, the set and even the ambience set the tone carefully and thoughtfully as he crafted us into the characters and the world he wanted.
After a series of unfortunate events my leading man was replaced with a newcomer to the JSU stage, one Phil Pyle. He was dashing and dapper but he was new and I didn’t know him. I didn’t know until years later that during the Sabrina Fair audition he asked, “Who is that?” to a friend of mine. The friend looked up, saw he was asking about me and said, “You don’t want any part of that” and dismissed Phil’s interest. Another story for another time. But I digress.
One of my biggest memories is of begging Dr. Whitton to re-block a scene where I was to be lifted on a stone wall by Phil’s character. I don’t know why that sticks out in my mind, but it does. I didn’t want Phil to try and lift me because I was afraid he couldn’t. Despite Dr. Stephen J. Whitton’s insistence I am pretty sure I ‘hopped’ up on that wall every time even though it was much less romantic. Another memory that stands out vividly is the scene where we were to kiss. We’d practice up until that point then break character, call out ‘KISS’ and move on. Until one day when -just when he would have shouted kiss-Phil leaned in and whispered, ‘he told me to do this’ before kissing me gently on the lips. I am pretty sure Dr. Stephen J. Whitton clapped his hands in glee. Maybe he knew something we didn’t yet realize. It wouldn’t surprise me.
Sabrina Fair was a love story that centered around my character, Sabrina and 2 brothers: Linus and ironically, David. One of my dearest and most annoying friends, AJ played one part and this newcomer…this Pyle fellow played the other. The play became a mirror of sorts for the lives we were living. It’s another story for another day but I was involved with a David of my own. Phil became a part of my life and AJ sat right there in the middle of it all…some things never change. (He was the one that tried to warn Phil off during Sabrina Fair auditions.)
Phil became my best friend. We tried to date but it never went well. I was too shy or unsettled by my own situation. He was frustrated by that. I both intrigued and irritated him. (that hasn’t changed much) Hence our bumbling attempts to become more than friends were just awkward and clumsy. The friendship part worked well. Even then he was my rock, my anchor in the volatile storm that raged in and around me. I trusted him. I loved him, I think, but couldn’t quite articulate or even process that feeling. Dr. Stephen J. Whitton remained a part of our lives even after the curtain fell on Sabrina Fair.
Phil, AJ and I parted ways after graduation. We stayed in touch, a bit. I was invited to his wedding and he to mine. Neither of us attended the others day. Birthday cards and letters passed forth through the years. There was an occasional call every few years but nothing more.
Skip ahead to 2002 ish. I had gotten divorced as had he. Spontaneously I asked the question, “would anyone like to meet up?” and thus began a new scene in my life with some old characters. AJ flew in from Florida, Phil from California and I picked them up in a red mustang convertible…a newer model than the one I drove in college but a mustang and a convertible non-the-less. It was symbolic, fun and was the perfect method for this travel down memory lane. We headed to the mountains of Tennessee for 3 days of memories new memories doing old things like Scrabble can cards, laughing and good natured bickering. There was also my dad’s homemade concoction- “cough medicine” that made us laugh a little harder and talk a little louder. It was like time had stopped. I was Sabrina and they assumed their characters of Linus and David. And it was perfect.
“I got married when I couldn’t have you and I got divorced because she wasn’t you.” This is the line that changed my world forever. Those are the very words that tipped me over the edge and gave me the courage to love again. Months later I would fly to California and drive across country with my leading man, bringing him home.
One of our first stops was to visit Dr. Stephen J. Whitton. He loves Phil like a son and always treats me like his leading lady. We love him and he loves us. It seemed right and natural to make our entrée as a couple to him—the man that brought us together.
When we got married he presented us with an antique copy of Sabrina Fair. It’s one of my most prized possessions. We got pregnant and immediately knew if we had a son he would be called Jackson Stephen after our Jacksonville State alma mater and our beloved Dr. Stephen J. Whitton. A daughter named Sabrina would have been sentimental but I just couldn’t make myself love that name.
Today my Sadie is meeting Dr. Stephen J. Whitton as my husband surprises his mentor, his friend, with a surprise retirement party. Our friend AJ is with them. He is the reason she’s here and I hate that I am not there with them. I hope she loves Dr. Stephen J. Whitton and that she loves him as much as her daddy and I do.
Thank you, Dr. Stephen J. Whitton, for making me your Sabrina.