It’s 6:30 p.m. on a Wednesday. In the gallery, the Fine Arts Center seems rather deserted, but if you listen closely you’ll hear counting. It’s coming from the Casella Theatre. Inside you’ll see a group of 10 students in a circle on stage doing push-ups. A 40-something-year-old man is slowly walking around the circle, his smile tinged with a hint of sadism and a dash of gratification.The group then stands up as this man recites different words in an Irish dialect, the group of students repeating each one. At first glance, one might assume this was a cult of some sort.
But this, in fact, is just another night at play rehearsal (not play practice) for students at Castleton State College, and the aforementioned “cult” leader is professor and Chair of the Theater department, Harry McEnerny IV.
The recent Faculty Fellow recipient has been a professor at CSC for 14 years, and is damn proud of it. But don’t call what he does drama. One evening, he was in the kitchen chopping vegetables for dinner when an acquaintance referred to his department as one of drama rather than theatre.
He didn’t like that.
“He stopped chopping vegetables immediately and slowly turned toward him,” said Robynn Stanley, a junior at CSC who witnessed the event. McEnerny quietly and sternly suggested that the person not undermine something he’s been working toward most of his life.
“I’ve never seen him that serious before. It was scary.”
A DAY IN THE LIFE…
McEnerny, known to his students and colleagues alike as simply ‘Harry,’ resides in a quiet little suburb of Middlebury, Vt. It’s a place where children ride by on their bicycles and moms can be seen power walking together in their running shoes. With him in the two-story house are his wife, Monica, and French Poodle named Corduroy. The kitchen walls are adorned with many of the awards and recognitions McEnerny has earned through the years.
The refrigerator includes magnets of Austin Powers, British Flags, “I Heart Poodles” and one of Einstein that has interchangeable outfits including a chicken costume, formal suit and astronaut costume.
His mornings consist of reading online news websites — MSN, CNN, Burlington Free Press, and ESPN, to be exact — while drinking a hot cup of half regular half decaf coffee. Why half regular, half decaf, you ask?
“I used to drink all regular coffee, and nobody needs to see me on all regular coffee. That’s ugly.”
After a quick shower, it’s off to Castleton, “a 37-minute commute which is long enough for me to think about what my day’s gonna be about, get mad about it, and get over it,” he says.
When he arrives at school, he goes straight to his office in the lower level of the Fine Arts Center in the Costume Shop. On his office door, a poster of playwright Bertolt Brecht can be found, along with notes from students requesting his presence. Inside lies a large bookcase filled with numerous different plays or books about plays.
One wall acts as a giant chalk board, displaying various messages written by different students, phone numbers and a quote with bolded letters that scream “TAKE IT HARD OR NOT AT ALL!”
Other items in his office include a small statue of a frog playing a guitar, a row of Diet Dr. Pepper bottles and a framed picture of Bugs Bunny and Gossamer (the big, furry red monster) sitting at a table with Bugs’ line “I always say, monsters are the most in-ter-esting people.”
Above his desk is a large framed poster of his production of Jesus Christ Superstar, one of CSC’s biggest productions to date. On his Mac computer, you can always count on the wallpaper consisting of a picture from his previous production. Right now, it’s a picture of a scene from The Cripple of Inishmaan, which just ended its run on Nov. 14.
The opening act
Harry McEnerny IV was born in New Orleans, La. — during a hurricane.
“Answers a lot of questions, doesn’t it?” he says.
He grew up, however, in Chattanooga, Tenn. with two sisters, Kathleen and Allison. His third sister Maggie wasn’t born until he was in high school. His dad worked in computer systems, while his mom worked at a non-profit.
McEnerny’s first paying job was at an amusement park in North Georgia called Lake Winnepesaukah, now known as Lake Winnie, working in the “games department” coaxing passersby via microphone to play the game he was hosting.
“That might be one of the favorite jobs I’ve ever had because a lot of people had these shirts that said ‘If you aint from Georgia, you aint shit.’ And it didn’t occur to them that if you take the negatives out of that sentence, you get ‘If you’re from Georgia, you’re shit.’ And this is what they’re walking around the park wearing. I found that funny. They didn’t get it.”
A face that changed it all
Once upon a time in Ashland, Va. Harry McEnerny saw this amazing face. He vividly remembers the time and place when he met the love of his life, Monica. It was at Randolph-Macon, the college they both attended. He was hanging out in his friend Judy’s room one day when her suitemate Monica came in, looking for her roommate, and left.
“After I picked my jaw up off the floor, I asked ‘who was that?’ She was wearing a purple shirt at the time. It looked like ribbons. Like she was wrapped.”
Monica remembers the encounter too.
“He was pretty loud and obnoxious so I got to know him pretty quickly,” Monica says.
“It was the beginning of a long and beautiful friendship,” Harry says.
He was sitting in his first political science class a few days later when Monica walked in and sat in front of him. Harry didn’t do well in that class.
Harry and Monica’s ideas of their first date differ, however. If you ask Monica, their first dates were nights spent in the school’s library, playing Spades. Those nights included one when they had their first kiss in the stairway of a dorm. It was the same night Harry stole Monica’s notebook and ran out into the rain with her chasing him.
“On what day was that?” Harry grills Monica.
“Ugh you always do this, I don’t know, September… 21st? 20th? I don’t know, September something.”
“The 20th, September 20th,” he said.
“I had it right!”
“You said it second! [pause] You see, we’re still madly in love with each other.”
The story of their engagement is a little less orthodox, Monica explains.
“I had dropped out of school and gone to Belgium, I was going to study there, and I realized that I was pregnant. And this was before the days of cell phones so I wrote a letter to Harry saying ‘I think I might be pregnant,'” she said.
When he received the letter, Harry called Monica overseas. Because it was so expensive, the phone call was short.
“Well do you wanna get married?” Harry asked.
Monica said okay. And just like that, Harry and his parents (whom Monica was meeting for the first time) flew over to Belgium and they were married.
(Please go to castletonspartan.com to read the rest. You’ll be glad you did.)
Designers——————————Here is where I would break the story in the print edition
Harry McEnerny V was born when they were both seniors at Randolph-Macon. Monica dropped out and started working for Randolph-Macon, while Harry graduated a semester late. By the time they were 25, Harry and Monica had two kids.
“It was a hard time, it was a tumultuous time, but it was a really special time because it was just ours,” Monica said, adding she doesn’t regret a thing.
Harry started working odd jobs to support his new family. He worked in dry wall construction, as a shoe salesman, as a substitute teacher and at a respite care center. All the while, Harry was doing plays at Barksale Theatre in Richmond, Va.
It was through Barksale that Harry got a job teaching high school theater classes for a brief period and then it was back to Randolph-Macon where he worked as a technical director building sets. Harry eventually went to grad school and Monica got her degree.
The college try
In January of 1996, Monica brought Harry a magazine that contained some job listings.
“You’re dream job is gonna be in that one,” she said.
Harry was less optimistic after too many previous letdowns. Low and behold, his future was right there in the pages of that very magazine: the Castleton job listing. He got a phone interview, where he convinced them to bring him to campus. So they brought him. And just a week later, Harry officially became professor McEnerny.
“It’s, it’s interesting. All the time, it’s interesting. It’s constantly changing. I guess that’s what I like about it. There’s always a different challenge for every single play,” he says, of his directing duties at Castleton.
And it’s no secret how McEnerny feels about his students.
“They’re wonderful, they’re great to work with.”
You’ll rarely catch a time when he isn’t paying the utmost attention to any given student who’s speaking to him. Looking intently into their eyes, but not quite staring, he seems genuinely interested in everything his students have to say.
“I wanna treat them like people. Not like ‘them.’ It’s not ‘me and them, it’s us … And here’s another thing, these young actors are being trained to have their emotional vulnerability waiting for them any time, to just have that on their sleeve. And you can’t do that if you don’t feel safe in the environment that you’re asked to do this. I try to foster an environment where they can feel safe.”
Fast time at Castleton State
When students first meet Harry McEnerny, most immediately notice that he isn’t your average professor.
“I think he extends that fatherly presence to his students. I think they really appreciate his sincerity and respect his honesty,” says Monica.
“The first day I met him, he said my name wrong. And then made jokes about my name. And this was at roll call,” laughs Courtney LaFlamme, a recent graduate of CSC. “I didn’t know him that well, but he would still cut comments, it was very (long pause) welcoming in a way? Which is kinda crazy, but I knew that he was interested in knowing me because he would joke around with me even though I hadn’t been his student for three years or anything like that,” LaFlamme says. And she said his unorthodox ways don’t stop at just name-calling.
“He shoved a student in a trash can once,” she said.
“That was an accident,” Harry explains. “What I was trying to do… was… help this student down the stairs because she had a boatload of books. What ended up happening was I shoved her in a trash can and wheeled her out into the driveway in front of the Fine Arts Center. The mistake I made was leaving her there,” he says, matter-of-factly.
“What are you talking about?” asks Monica.
“I may have shoved a student in a trash can and wheeled them out to the driveway in front of the FAC… Two things: 1) I think it’s funny. And very, very, very importantly: it’s not malicious. It is all, if you can believe this, shoving a student in a garbage can and wheeling them out to the front of the FAC out of respect,” he says with a smile.
“Wonderful,” “patient,” “kind,” “understanding,” “fantastic.” These are all words that have been used to describe Harry McEnerny IV. According to LaFlamme, he’s “everything you want in a professor, minus the scolding and crying.”
But what about when he draws all over his students with a Sharpie? Or ties them to poles with their own clothing? Or steals their clothes and puts them on? Or locks you in the props closet?
“Well, I know that he’ll be at my wedding, and I know that he’ll be at so many others’ too. So he’s obviously doing something right,” she said.