So there I was, standing in the lobby of the theater building and still unaccustomed to my freshman life on campus, when my new advisor/director walked up to me. “So here’s the thing.” Jerry said, “You want to study to be a lawyer, but that’s not right. You’re not going to ever be a lawyer no matter how much you study, because you are a writer. That’s what you’re good at and that’s what you should do.” He said this as easily if he were telling me that rehearsals for “Cabaret” had been bumped back by a half an hour. It was a matter of fact. There was no other option. There would be no discussion or debating ….yet, the words were confident and kind. I didn’t know at the time that this was his style. I didn’t know that he seemed to have an endless supply of alternate paths hiding somewhere in the organized chaos of his mind. Never did I hear a “No” about something that it wasn’t coupled with a “How about this instead?” Always as if he hadn’t sought me out to give me this information….and always with a twinkle in his eye because he knew that he was correct.
Jerry Dellinger was aware that I had wanted to be a lawyer since I was six years old. In fact, Jerry knew all about me when no one else did. His sister-in-law had been my houseparent in a sort of orphanage called, “Mooseheart”, in Aurora, Illinois. She thought that I was intelligent and funny but worried that I was a little too odd for an average life in a mundane place. When Jerry heard about me he asked me to come visit Lincoln College to determine whether or not I would attend in the fall of 1990. While I tried to impress him with my brain, he sought out my humor. After telling him that I wanted to get my degree at Lincoln College and then go on to Harvard to be a lawyer, Jerry looked at me as if I had expressed a deep desire to go to clown college and then get my master’s in pie-throwing. To his credit, he kept his disapproval to himself. Now I know that if he could not give me a better option, he wouldn’t advise me at all. After the tour of the campus, he sat me down in the lobby of the theater building. I learned then that he would be my advisor and my major would be in Theater. Discussion about this was minimal. While I tried to dissuade him from his plan by telling him I had never acted or worked on a play, he dismissed all of my concerns. “Don’t worry,” he said, “I’ll teach you all of that.” I didn’t know it at the time, but this was the first of hundreds of decisions that Jerry would guide me through over the next 18 years.
With Jerry I learned the magical world of the theater. I built sets, ran lights & sound, did hair & makeup, acted and was generally in awe of my the brilliance of my mentor. He taught me how to excel at everything by entrusting me with tasks beyond my self- perceived capabilities….but he knew better than I did of what I could achieve. Even my friends were handpicked by Mr. Dellinger. Steering me toward the right people and away from the bad ones may have been a full-time job for him, if I hadn’t been such a quick learner.
The most telling part of our relationship came in January of my freshman year. I needed to find the person whom I knew I could trust unconditionally. As any girl in my situation can tell you, it isn’t easy to confide that you have been raped. In my case, it was an acquaintance rape. The perpetrator was another student on campus. Jerry took it well. He first offered me his sympathy and then his outrage. Then he switched gears to look at things logically. What were my options? What were my concerns? What could the two of us do to turn this situation around and get past the feelings I had? We talked into the nite. It’s unclear how many appointments he canceled so that he could stay with me. I remember him telling the people in the theater that they had to leave. We sat on the stairs which led to the far side of the auditorium, a set of three or four steps, and faced the closed door a few feet in front of us. We never did go into the theater, we stayed on or by those steps for several hours as we tried to figure out my life. Eventually I went back to my dorm to get some sleep. Promises were made to Jerry that I would call him day or nite if I needed anything at all and that I would return in the morning for further solutions.
It was decided that I would start working on my final piece for my freshman acting class. Jerry picked out the scene himself. The play was called, “Extremities”. It is the story of a woman who is attacked in her home by a would-be rapist. During the attack, the woman blinds him with a spray for killing bees. She then cages him in her fireplace as she tries to determine how to make him pay for what he tried to do to her. Playing opposite me would be a classmate whom Jerry knew to be a good friend. Don Johnston was much larger than I and had great range in his abilities. I had always thought that Don knew why he was chosen for this scene, but it turns out he did not. However Jerry, as always, was entirely correct. We performed our acting final so well that the theater department decided to produce the play on the main stage the following semester. Don reprised his role as the villain and I declined to play the lead. Actually, that was Jerry’s decision too. He felt that the therapy had worked and it would be best for me to move on with my life.
After I graduated from Lincoln College, I continued on as I had before. Working on summer theater projects with Mr. Dellinger and pursuing my writing career. When Jerry told me it was time for me to start performing my poetry in public, I did. Not only did he come to my debut reading at Barnes & Noble, but he stopped by my apartment afterward with a small gift. He had stolen the sign with the list of poets who would be appearing that nite….I still have it.
Boyfriends never got to the next level without meeting Jerry Dellinger. Big decisions rarely got any further than vague thoughts without his approval. He took the only two wedding photos which are displayed in my house. He is the reason I am still trying to make it as a writer. It is only fitting since he is the reason I found that passion at all.
Jerry Dellinger passed away on August 2nd, 2010. He began almost every conversation with me in the same way, as if our last conversation had never ended. “So there I was….” Or “So here’s something….” and off we’d go to discover what new twists and tumbles my life was about to take.
My heart aches as if I have not only lost a teacher, but a director, a father, a friend, a confidante, a mentor, an advisor and a part of myself.
So there I was….when my friend Jeff sent me the message that Jerry had died….and as a writer I was at a loss for words.
So here’s something….in all of the menagerie that embodied this lovely and inspiring man….there is no one who will ever come close to being that magical in my life again.
barbie dockstader angell.
august 3rd, 2010.