September 1, 2010
Former students remember Whiting
Teacher, theater director was known for love of drama
HOMER — The first thing people remember about Bill Whiting and his love for theater was his knack for recruiting first-time actors to his countless productions.
“He liked introducing people to Shakespeare, convincing people to perform Shakespeare as their first play,” said Kim Hubbard of Homer, his student in the 1970s and collaborator more recently. “There are so many people who would never have been exposed to it or set foot on a stage, if not for Bill. He coaxed people into believing, because he regarded each production as a little family. People would say no, no, no, and then later they’d be the first ones to ask when the next play was.”
Whiting, who founded the Shakespearean Society at Homer High School and directed plays around the area for 50 years, died at his Cortlandville home Sunday of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and lung cancer. He was 77.
A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. Sunday at United Presbyterian Church at 25 Church St., Cortland. A reception will follow.
Hubbard, a professional actor who graduated from Homer in 1971, will read the eulogy.
Whiting is survived by his wife, Ruth, and a brother, Jim, of Encinitas, Calif.
He directed a play in April at United Presbyterian Church, where he produced plays through the Trope Troupe and where he was a congregation leader, a chair of many committees and an archivist who built a collection of church history and documents.
He retired as a teacher and drama director from Homer High School in 1987, after 31 years. He taught English until the early 1970s, then German.
“He was a remarkable teacher, just exceptional,” said Dennis Wright of Homer, another former student, who acted in Whiting’s plays in high school and more recently.
“You just look back on your life and certain people made a difference,” said Wright, a former teacher and administrator in the Homer, DeRuyter and Cato-Meridian school districts. “Bill was one. He opened intellectual doors for me. I think he did the same for many people.”
Whiting was a Watkins Glen native who received degrees from College of Wooster and Wells College.
Hubbard said Whiting built a career as an actor but settled in Homer because his wife did not want him roaming the country with his work.
“Bill performed in ‘Our Town’ with Thornton Wilder himself, and he knew Lee Marvin and other big names,” Hubbard said. “He said he quit because he wasn’t good enough, which I dispute — he had fallen in love with his dear Ruth, who didn’t want him to travel. So he became a teacher.”
Whiting said most high school students experience Shakespeare as a text to read aloud in class, a forced chore, missing what it is like to see the comedies and dramas come alive on stage. So he founded the Society in 1957-58, Hubbard said.
“He started with a production of ‘Hamlet,’ which is not the easiest play to mount, and over 50 years later, the Society is still going,” Hubbard said. “He and Ruth went to Shakespeare plays all over, and he loved all of it,” Hubbard said. “I think his favorites were ‘Hamlet’ and ‘The Tempest.’” Hubbard said Whiting would see people who might be amateur actors and convince them to join a play because a friend of theirs was, then use the same technique on the friend. Or he would let people try working with costumes or the stage, then watch them decide to try acting.
“He got me into college when nobody wanted me because my grades were bad,” Hubbard said. “He wrote letters for me. I got an associate’s degree, then a bachelor’s in theater arts at SUNY Plattsburgh, then a master’s at Penn State. He wrote letters for me each time.”
Paulette Fry, the church’s organist, said Whiting was a key part of the congregation who ran committees, cooking dinner for the adult choir when he chaired the choir and music committee. He gathered every bit of information and every photograph he could to build the church’s historical library.
The church named a room after him. The stage at the Center for the Arts in Homer also bears his name.
Hubbard said Whiting’s basement contains a library of 10,000 books, CDs and other items, “meticulously organized.” Whiting was also involved with the summer Chautauqua arts lecture series in Homer.
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