“All here present today know what it is like to be wrapped up in the care, concern and comedy of Larry Coleman. What a joyful place to be.”
Wingate University President Rhett Brown spoke those words to the crowd inside the Batte Center’s McGee Theatre on Monday as part of his welcoming comments during “A Standing Ovation,” a ceremony to dedicate the Larry Coleman Stage.
The event, planned after Coleman’s retirement in 2016, but well prior to his death on Feb. 2, was part personal remembrance, part dramatic performance and all tribute to the 28-year veteran communications professor who poured himself into the lives of those around him. Without the support of a theater major, Coleman took students from all disciplines and turned them into what Amee Odom called a family of misfits.
The director of Wingate’s Ethel K. Smith Library and a veteran of the Coleman stage, Odom told the crowd that “Larry managed to coax a great performance from more actors and crews than we can count.”
“One of Larry’s true talents,” she said, was “knowing what to do with the misfits and how to make them a successful troupe.”
Her portion of the program, titled “I Can’t; I Have Rehearsal,” highlighted Coleman’s passion for his family, biological and otherwise, and his willingness to make sacrifices for all.
“Larry created a family. He, Barbara and the girls welcomed us all as surrogate family members,” she said. “Larry gave us his time, his expertise, his knowledge and, perhaps most importantly, his spirit.
Wingate alumni, all directed by Larry Coleman during their time at the University, performed excerpts from several plays during Monday’s stage dedication.
Odom described Coleman as the “lifeline back stage,” consistently giving his cast and crew notes to help them improve.
“And if we took our post-rehearsal notes well, and really listened, we would have known his demand for perfection, meticulous attention to detail and thoughtful consideration not only defined a good performance but were benchmarks for a life well lived,” Odom explained.
As if in testimony to the power of Coleman’s investment in their lives, five alumni — Bridgett Bates, Stephanie Cartwright, Brian Johnson, Robert Hartley and Jamie Rimany — bounded on to the stage to bring scenes from prior productions to life. Words and songs from “Bleacher Bums,” “Feiffer’s People,” “Smoke on the Mountain” and other performances filled the theater prompting laughter, smiles and an occasional tear from many who had come to honor Coleman’s work and his life.
The program that began with a prayer written by his older brother, Professor Emeritus Byrns Coleman, and read by alumnus Mark Carnes ended with a presentation from another of Coleman’s former cast members. Nicholas Roberts shared “Lessons Learned” from the beloved teacher and mentor.
As a photo of Larry Coleman and Roberts, both wearing helmets and facing off with oversized, padded sticks appeared on the screen behind him, Roberts described his dismay when, as a freshman, he was helping set up inflatables near Laney Hall for a festival and was challenged to a joust.
“No way was I about to strike a professor,” he said. “But he insisted, and before I knew it we were battling it out.”
Larry Coleman’s family, including his wife Barbara, three daughters, son-in-law and grandchildren on the left, and his brother Byrns’ family on the right, gather for Monday’s stage dedication. Coleman’s name is on the stage apron between Barbara and Byrns.
This, Roberts said, was Larry’s academia: “One devoid of pedestals and stiff upper lips. One that defied the ordinary. It was rife with lots of laughs, connectedness and caring, and teamwork with shared successes and setbacks.”
Roberts said Coleman was not only an incredible creator but inspired creativity in those around him, always living in the moment and using humor to honor the gift of life.
“No matter what meeting or class Larry might be running late for or what physical pain he was battling, Larry would always make one more joke, do one more bit if he thought he could get another laugh out of you,” Roberts said, alluding in part to Coleman’s battle with Parkinson’s disease.
Among other lessons, he said Coleman taught him to assume the good intentions of others, to be brave and to seek redemption in unlikely places.
“His lessons got us through many productions together,” Roberts added. “His lessons stayed with us and became the better parts of who we are today.”