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June 3, 2011 > Thanks for the memories

Thanks for the memories

Beloved teacher takes her final bow

By Jay Coleman

Following a long-time custom, Linda Jackson-Whitmore walked onstage recently after an Irvington High School (IHS) dance recital, introduced the dancers-particularly graduating seniors-and thanked the audience for attending. Then, clad in well-polished tap shoes, she ended the evening on a high note by joining the younger dancers in a lively tap number as the curtain closed. The closing curtain was an apt metaphor for Jackson-Whitmore, who is exiting the stage and retiring at the end of the school year after 36 years as Fremont's premier high school theatre and dance instructor.

"Ms. J," as she's known to friends, teachers and students, discovered performing arts almost by accident. Growing up in San Francisco, she was an athlete and cheerleader at Abraham Lincoln High School. During her junior college days at San Francisco City College, she saw a flyer for auditions for the Black Grassroots Theatre, which piqued her interest. "I auditioned and won the lead role, and just fell in love with theatre," Ms. J says. "Finding the theatre turned my life around and changed all my thinking."

At San Francisco State, she changed her major from Business /Accounting to Theatre Arts and graduated in 1973. That summer she taught a theatre workshop for high school students, many from Fremont. When the position of drama instructor, director, choreographer and Performing Arts Club advisor at Washington High School became available in 1975, Ms. J jumped at the opportunity. In 1978, she transferred to IHS, where she has taught for 33 years.

"I had stars in my eyes when I first graduated from college, and thought about going to New York and trying to make it on Broadway," Ms. J says. "But I knew that I would just be one face in a thousand. So I thought, 'I'll try teaching for a little while.'"

Now, a third of a century later, she is looking forward to spending more time with her husband, Vernon, sons Christopher and Andrew, daughter Charisse and seven grandchildren. Now there will be time for travel and maybe community theatre, Ms. J says with a grin. First, there's a June community retirement celebration and the June 11 Tony Awards, honoring the year's top Irvington performers.

Irvington High School, of course, fills a special place in Ms. J's heart. In 1990, the school became a magnet program for the performing arts, sponsored by Ohlone College; Ms. J assumed the role of artistic director of the Irvington Conservatory Theatre (ICT). Producing two high school plays each year - fall and spring - in a 36-year career adds up to some eye-popping numbers; more than 70 shows, thousands of cast and crewmembers, audiences in the tens of thousands; and countless hours of rehearsals and performances.

"Linda brought a level of professionalism to the arts that you don't see at the high school level," says IHS Principal Pete Murchison. "The magnet program is one of the best performing arts schools in the East Bay, and that would not be true if not for Ms. Jackson. We've got lots of talent and great productions because she has created a culture and an environment for kids who love the arts. She is a living legend, and we're lucky to have been around her."

While students make up the lion's share of a typical production cast and crew, Ms. J has recruited ISH teachers to fill special roles. Math teacher Ryan Willer has become the resident lighting and sound designer on shows. In 2008, Gary Leinweber taught calculus by day and had a lead role - Rev. Shaw Moore - in a production of "Footloose" at night. Science teacher Dan Pearce made his acting debut in the same show as Coach Roger Dunbar.

"I learned that putting on a show is an enormous undertaking," Pearce says. "I had dropped by the theatre to watch the kids rehearse before but I had no idea that it was basically a month-and-a-half obsession for everyone, from Ms. J to the actors to the costume makers to the stage designers and so forth. I also learned that Ms. J has incredible patience. Theatre kids are constantly off task, and I couldn't believe the lengths Ms. J had to go to get them to learn their parts."

Students - and parents - quickly learn that an ICT production takes a special commitment. "You learn a lot about time management," says James Jones, a 2010 IHS graduate, who had lead roles in Seussical, Grease and Aida, when not staring in local Starstruck Theatre productions. "Ms. J expects a lot, but also gets a lot from her performers. She only wants the best - the best music, lighting, sound, acting - and she makes the shows a collaborative effort. Ms. J really helped me grow as an actor."

That collaborative effort is evident in many ways, Ms. J says. A few months before each show she meets with her production staff, set designer, choreographer, costume designer and others to discuss plays they'd like to do and the effort it would take to do them. They consider the range of talent in the school at the time and how it matches to shows under consideration. For example, she always wanted to direct Hairspray, but never thought she had just the right cast for it. This spring, ICT produced Starmites, Ms. J's final show and one she had been thinking about for three to four years.

Recently, Ms. J. received the Inspirational Theatre Educator Award from the International Thespian Society, after being nominated by IHS student Sarah Laus. "Ms. J is a strong believer in following your passion but also in supporting yourself," Laus says. "There is a small fee to be in ICT productions, and if the fee causes a hardship, she grants a scholarship to make sure all can participate. If you are a scholarship recipient, Ms. J requires extra service hours, which teaches me that nothing is free; I need to work hard to show my appreciation for opportunities and to work hard to be successful."

Hard work and long hours come with the job, says Ms. J, who for 36 years has added to long school days and rehearsals by commuting to Fremont from homes in San Francisco, Oakland and, more recently, Richmond. "I've always enjoyed what I was doing, so I don't mind the after-school hours and commute time," she notes. "I unwind on the drive home - sometimes I even choreograph in my head in the car. And you can see me dancing in the car when I'm stopped at a red light."

While the ICT productions draw the most attention, Ms. J also cherishes the dance classes she has taught over the years. "There's a dance explosion on our campus now," she says. "Students don't want a lot of technique; they want to express themselves in their own way. We've evolved from our first dance class in 1988-89, when we had 13 students, to a class called The Art of Dance, where they learn choreography and performance-and we have 95 students already signed up for next year!"

Thinking back over the past 36 years, Ms. J says she's proud of the way the Irvington Conservatory Theatre has grown in size and stature, how the IHS faculty has become more involved, the support she has received from the administration and the commitment of students and parent volunteers. She loves to think about the young students who've never performed before, and how they mature and blossom in four years - "Even the ones that gave me gray hairs at the time," she jokes.

"There have been times after months of rehearsal, instruction and critique that I've gone home on a Wednesday night - two nights before opening night - and cried," Ms. J says, tearing up at the memory. "Then we get together as a group the next day, talk about how we can do better than this and something starts to jell. The actors are on cue. The singers hit the right notes. The sets, costumes and make-up all come together. There's a magic that happens, and by Friday night, it's a great show. Those are the moments I'll miss the most."

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