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De Youngs' gift will support theatre arts enrichment

Barry McNamara
Professor emeritus Jim De Young and his wife, Jan, are pictured on one of their many off-campus adventures.
In his 39 years on campus – many of them in the old Little Theatre – professor emeritus Jim De Young directed an outstanding theatre program in Monmouth College’s rural, western Illinois setting. That success notwithstanding, De Young also appreciates the fact that world-class theatre is typically performed in an urban environment.

De Young enhanced that idea at Monmouth during his academic career, which included two appointments to the Associated Colleges of the Midwest’s London-Florence program and two National Endowment for the Arts summer fellowships. De Young, who received the first faculty appointment to the ACM’s Chicago Arts Program, also enjoyed theatre events throughout the U.S. and abroad.

Providing the resources for the next generation of Monmouth students to have those same kinds of enriching theatre experiences in metropolitan settings was one of the reasons for a $25,000 gift that De Young and his wife, Jan, recently made to Monmouth College.

The other element behind the creation of the De Young Theatre Arts Education Fund, he said, was to honor his parents, Chester and Lillian De Young. They were not able to attend college themselves, but they stressed education to their children, and both De Young and his sister went on to graduate from college. De Young attended Beloit College, where he met Jan, before going on to graduate school at Bowling Green State University and the University of Minnesota. Jim and Jan both spent their careers in education.

“The original impetus for the gift was, ‘How do you pay back your parents – or any mentor – who has changed your life?’” De Young said. “My mom had a high school diploma, but my dad had to drop out in his sophomore year to help support his family. One thing they were bound and determined about, though, was that their kids would get an education. You remember that kind of commitment. It always sticks with you.”

As for experiencing high-quality, professional theatre, you could say, literally, that De Young wrote the book. His “London Theatre Walks,” first published in 1998 and now in its second edition, is subtitled, “Thirteen Dramatic Tours Through Four Centuries of History and Legend.” It was conceived while De Young was in London during the 1972-73 academic year, attending almost 200 plays. He completed the book during a sabbatical more than two decades later.

In one of his recent “Stirring the Pudding” blog entries, De Young explained, “I directed plays at Monmouth that spanned western theatrical history, from Sophocles and Shakespeare to Ibsen and Pinter. For me, at least, getting inside those dramatic worlds required an actual commitment to see the places … where those works were created. I felt and still feel that putting your own feet on the stones of the past creates a new mortar – a glue that binds you to those who came before and to those who will come after.”

Initially, the De Youngs’ gift won’t produce quite enough annual funding to cross the Atlantic, but it will help with trips similar to recent weekends in St. Louis and Chicago, where fine arts students were able to visit galleries and museums and attend performances and shows. The fund will also enrich Monmouth’s educational program by helping to fund guest theatre artists and lecturers on campus.

While teaching at Monmouth from 1963 to 2002, De Young said it was not uncommon to hear of schools cutting field trips or visiting artists during tough budgetary times.

“This fund will help ensure that these kinds of enrichment activities will remain funded and be a part of our students’ education even in challenging times,” he said.

At first an anthropology major in college, and then interested in geology, De Young ultimately settled on theatre and hasn’t looked back. When asked what students “get” out of a theatre major, De Young quipped, “Unemployed!”

But, turning serious, he added, “A liberal arts education has always been about more than training for a job. It’s about learning to think, solving problems and being part of a creative team that gets something done. In the theatre, you do all of that and more. You help make people laugh, cry, think and feel. I tried to select plays that would make both the participants and the audiences stretch their emotional muscles. In a darkened auditorium, you can safely sample experiences and feelings that may never come to you in real life.”

Related to De Young’s sense of the real essence of education is a commitment to leaving the world a better place for people that you may never meet and who may never know just who it was that cleared the path before them.

De Young said that a line from Alan Bennett’s play, “The History Boys,” best summarizes what teaching is all about: “paying it forward.”

“Pass the parcel. That’s sometimes all you can do. Take it, feel it, pass it on. Not for me, not for you, but for someone, somewhere, some day. Pass it on, boys. That’s the game I wanted you to learn. Pass it on.”