It was just a few weeks into my senior year when my letter of acceptance into Purdue University arrived in the mail. My career path into engineering was seemingly set in stone. I was elated to be going to school at Purdue and with the possibility of rooming with one of my best friends in school. Studying engineering, though? Not so much. There was an alternative that was much more to my liking.
I found what I felt was my true calling during the second semester of my sophomore year when I took Journalism 1 taught by Mrs. Terry Nelson. To simply say that Terry Nelson, or “Oz” as we liked to call her (derived from Ozzie and Harriet), was one of my many teachers during my thirteen years from kindergarten to grade 12 is like simply saying George Washington was a president of the United States of America. There are teachers and then there are TEACHERS, and Mrs. Nelson was certainly one of the latter. She taught us more than just the “Five W’s and an H” or how to structure a story and write effective copy to draw the reader in. She was a teacher of life and of critical thinking. She encouraged us to dream big and to live life to its fullest. Learning was fun with her and I loved her dearly for making it so. She was a mentor and a friend, and, most importantly, wasn’t afraid to tell us the truth or to slap us upside the head when we needed it. She was the best.
I took Terry’s Newspaper class as a junior and a senior. My role as a junior was that of a sports writer. I loved it. It gave me a good reason to attend as many sporting events as possible and allowed me insider information by interviewing the coaches and players. The Sports Section of our school paper, The Broadcaster, included an occasional column that allowed me to spout off my opinions on the U.S. boycott of the Moscow Olympics and the prospects that Indiana would make a move to a class system in high school basketball. I liked to think that I was following in the footsteps of my sports writing idol, Bob Barnet of the Muncie Star.
I got a promotion to sports editor during my senior year, a promotion that excited me to no end. Unfortunately, I came to feel that it provided me less time to focus on what I truly loved: the writing. My heart wasn’t really into the whole editing thing so I started to half-ass it late in the first semester. Terry gave me what for for my lack of effort. It worked. That’s all that needs to be said about that.
Along with her Journalism, Newspaper, and Yearbook class duties, Terry was Yorktown High’s Drama Club sponsor. Many of her students were involved in Drama Club, including a few from the newspaper and yearbook staffs. Though I wasn’t a member of the club I was afforded the opportunity to have a peek behind the curtain while cast and crew were working on the stage productions. The newspaper staff often stayed after school to work on stories or to put the next issue to bed. As such, we were permitted by Terry to sit in on play rehearsals.
The fall production of 1980 was the play “Caught in the Villain’s Web”, a period piece about a manly hero, his scheming fiancé, an amnesiac nurse, and a dastardly villain. Two of my friends, Jeff and Mike, played the hero and villain, respectively. My best friend Lloyd and I sat in on several rehearsals and were enthralled by the entire process. The production was a smashing success and was nominated by the State Thespian directors for presentation at the Thespian Conference the following spring.
Lloyd and I realized what a rip roaring time could be had by joining our friends on stage and talked about trying out for the next production, “Heaven Can Wait”. Terry spoke to us both about the auditions and strongly encouraged us to give it a shot. We each came out of the auditions with speaking roles – Lloyd with a major character and I with a minor one. My role suited me just fine and I could not have been happier for Lloyd.
The mid-February production was another huge success for the Yorktown Drama Club. Jeff and Mike each had their starring roles along with a few of the usual players. Besides Lloyd and I there were several other new players on the stage and we each had our moments in the spotlight. Indiana Thespian Society’s state director, Ray Casey, was on hand for the Friday night performance along with student members of the society. They gave us rave reviews for the production and specifically mentioned Lloyd’s outstanding performance as Max. I beamed from ear-to-ear for my pal.
The play was selected for a one-act presentation at the state conference to be held in April. Terry chose the final act for the presentation and we went through the rehearsal process all over again. It was during this period that Terry shared with us the opportunity of a lifetime. The State Thespian Society was organizing a summer trip to New York City for students and adult chaperones. Lloyd and I could barely contain our excitement with this incredible news. We asked Terry over and over if this was for real or just a joke. She got fed up with our nagging and showed us the letter she received from Ray Casey, himself.
There it was in black and white and in all its glory — a week-long stay in New York City’s Hotel Edison, near the heart of Manhattan itself. The trip included two Broadway productions and one off-Broadway, a guided tour of Radio City Music Hall, and a trip to the top of the Empire State Building. I was going crazy with the possibilities of such a trip… until I read the price: six hundred dollars. I didn’t have that kind of money and didn’t have a job to raise it. My excitement burst like an over-filled water balloon.
When Mom asked me that night what happened at school that day I gave my typical response. “Not much.” She sensed there was more going on than usual so she pressed me a bit more. I didn’t want to bring up the New York trip because I knew she and Dad couldn’t afford to pay for it and then I’d have to listen to the “You need to get a job” speech, so I hem hawed around. She kept at it, though, and finally got it out of me. She confirmed what I already knew, but to her credit, she didn’t give me The Job Speech. She let Dad do that over dinner. It was one of his most inspired orations ever.
A few days later our family made our usual Friday night visit to Grandma and Granddad Studebaker’s house. Grandma and Granddad asked us kids what we did in school that week. Mick and Susie gave suitable responses to the query. Still feeling distraught about not going to New York I gave them the “Not much” answer. Grandma wasn’t having any of that. Years of experience with her own kids and the thousands of kids she had taught or counseled in school gave her a serious edge in probing the teen-aged mind. I’d been through her questioning enough times to know that resistance was futile, so I fessed up to what was eating away at me that week. She nodded in understanding and told me how sorry she was.
The following Friday during our next weekly visit Grandma pulled me aside. “Granddad and I talked about it this week and we want you to go to New York and we’re going to pay for it as our graduation gift to you,” she told me. The rest of the night from that moment is a blank. For all I know I sat in that spot with a slack-jawed, comatose look the rest of the evening. I do remember telling them “Thanks” and giving them each the biggest hugs I had ever given anyone before we left for home.