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One on One: 30-year-old story still inspires

By D.G. Martin

Why would I ask you to read from a column I wrote almost 30 years ago?

When I read that column, tearfully, at a recent family reunion, I knew I wanted to share it with you, just in case you missed it back in 1987.

That year was one of triumph for my mother.

In 1933 she finished college and left her home in South Georgia to go to New York to study theatre. She was admitted to the prestigious Neighborhood Playhouse, training ground for many of America’s best actors. It was the Depression, hard times for everybody. But she worked hard and took extra jobs to make enough money to stay in New York.

Would she have been a star?

You can never tell which gifted people fate will select to be successes in the world of acting. But it is clear that she had the talent to be good – to be great.

Fortunately for me, one of her jobs was producer and director of a summer stage production called “O Professor.” It traveled from place to place in the South during the summer of 1934. She recruited local talent, trained them, sold ads for the programs, managed costumes, directed the production and then split the profits with local charities or church groups. One stop was in Davidson, where my father (to-be) was working for Davidson College.

The rest of the story? It’s obvious. Well, almost. Romance. Love. Marriage. Children. Happiness. And sorrow too. Through it all, I don’t think she ever regretted her choice to be wife and mother.

But she was never able to prove what she knew in her heart – that she was good enough to be a star.

Those few who saw her through the years in amateur productions knew that she was good. Meanwhile, she earned her reputation as the caring, exuberant wife of a college administrator, who pushed students to do their best, charmed potential donors, thought up wonderful connections to bring people and resources together – and most of all, for three generations of college alumni, she remembered your name when you came back to campus.

And when my father, who was as close to a perfect husband and father as could be, was struck down with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, she did not hide it or deny it. There was no shame in her sorrow. Instead, she used that tragedy to help other families struck by Alzheimer’s. She helped them overcome their anger and guilt with the knowledge that many other families who suffered were ready to help each other.

She was a success by any measure, and at 76, she had every reason to sit back and relax but she went though her entire life without ever making it to the professional stage, until…

Until this spring (1987) when she got a chance to try out for the Charlotte Repertory Theatre’s production of the Broadway hit, “Steel Magnolias.” To make this long story a little shorter, she won a leading part and was a smashing success in a cast with five professional actresses – I mean five other professional actresses.

They packed them in. They wowed them. At 76, making her professional debut, my mom was a star. Triumph.

Unfortunately, not long after the curtain came down, she noticed a dreaded lump in her breast. It was malignant and she had a mastectomy.

Down and out you would think she would be. Nope. Her first words to me on my first visit after surgery: “Can you get the script for ‘Steel Magnolias?’ Charlotte Rep is going to do the play again and they have asked me to come back and do my part.”

She pushed through the recovery and was a star again, a reminder that we too may still have important roles to play, whatever our age or circumstance.

D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch.”

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