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Late professor is guiding light for Theatre Department
To celebrate her 35 years of teaching at Webster University, alumna Marita Woodruff received a lamp from the university. The lamp of the first and former chair of the Conservatory of Theatre Arts department illuminates the desk of current Theatre Department Chair Dorothy Englis.
Englis said she selfishly kept Woodruff’s lamp on her desk.
“(I’m) hoping it will help me get a little light and guidance in those tough moments,” Englis said.
Woodruff died on Feb. 17. Webster held a memorial to celebrate her life on March 22 in the Winifred Moore Auditorium. Woodruff passed away due to complications from Alzheimer’s disease.
Woodruff served as chair of the theater department from 1959 to 1969. To mark 25 years at teaching at Webster, Woodruf recieved a wooden chair. It sits at the head of the department’s meeting table.
Woodruff, a Sisters of Loretto co-member, led the theater department in its early years. The Sisters of Loretto founded Webster College, originally called Loretto College.
One of Woodruff’s former students, award-winning actress Marsha Mason, called Woodruff a dear friend. Mason was unable to attend the memorial on March 22, but sent a letter to the Dean of the Leigh Gerdine College of Fine Arts Peter Sargent to read on her behalf.
Mason’s letter described Woodruff as a personification of joy.
“My fondest memories are watching her run toward the stage while directing, her Loretto black habit and heavy rosary beads flying,” Mason said. “She ran everywhere — down the hall, down the stage.”
Woodruff graduated from Webster College in 1949 and joined the college’s faculty in 1957. She worked at the university for more than 40 years and retired in 1998.
Sargent said the theater department often asks themselves, ‘What would Marita do?’ when making decisions.
“Marita had for 10 years been the chair and guiding light of the department of theater at an incredible, pivotal time in Webster’s history,” Sargent said at the memorial.
Woodruff led the addition of the Loretto-Hilton Center for the Arts, which opened in 1966. Repertory Artistic Director Steven Woolf credits Woodruff for the theater’s existence.
“Without her, there’s no question that our little theater would not be here,” Woolf said at the memorial. “Her vision and tenacity helped to make (The Rep) possible.”
The following year, Webster College transferred control from the Sisters of Loretto to a lay board.
Sister Eleanor Craig, a Sister of Loretto nun and friend to Woodruff, said she was always impressed by how much joy Woodruff found in everything she did. Craig said Woodruff spread her joyful attitude.
“She had a great talent for drawing other people into delight about things. I experienced that in a friendship way, but I think that was what kind of teacher she was too,” Craig said. “Her energy was so infectious. It was part of her effectiveness, that she simply invited people to see things with the delight that she had.”
As her student, Mason said Woodruff taught her the basics she needed for her career and the confidence she needed to pursue it.
“What more could a student ask from a teacher?” Mason wrote in her letter.
Mason said Woodruff believed in her talent when Mason was not sure of her own.
“She was my teacher, my mentor, my surrogate mother in my times of need,” Mason’s letter read.
When Englis started at Webster in 1979, she said Woodruff was already a legend.
“She was part of a generation of women at Webster comprised of sisters, former sisters, women of like minds who were working here,” Englis said. “These women became my extended mentor circle and taught me so much about passion, compassion, leadership, purpose and service. And while rules and structure are important, they are never as important as the student’s learning under those rules.”
Conservatory of Theatre Arts Professor Bruce Longworth noted how Woodruff defended others.
“I remember how she would stand up for someone when she thought they had been wronged, and how she would tell you when you were wrong. In both instances, she was inevitably right,” Longworth said at the memorial.
Longworth recalled a time when a student and faculty had a differing opinion. Woodruff sided with the frustrated student.
“The student looked at Marita and said in disbelief, ‘How can you be older than the rest of them and more open-minded than all of them?’” Longworth recalled.
Englis said Woodruff was honest in her opinions. When she loved something, it was clear. When she hated something, she let it be known.
One day after a student rehearsal, Englis said Woodruff’s blunt feedback was, “It’s a comedy, you’re supposed to laugh.”
Longworth said students often made the mistake of thinking Woodruff fell asleep during their rehearsals. After the performance ended, she critiqued their work.
“I would watch their jaws drop as she dissected their performance moment by moment with precision and accuracy. It seemed a magic trick,” Longworth said.
He said Woodruff taught him a great deal about being a teacher and a director.
Woodruff spent most of her life on Lockwood Ave. and Big Bend. She attended Holy Redeemer Elementary School, Webster Groves High School and then Webster College. Craig said Woodruff had affection and loyalty for the community of Webster Groves and Loretto College.
Woodruff started at Webster College in 1945. Sister of Loretto and Webster professor Barbara Ann Barbato said that was when Woodruff was introduced to the Sisters of Loretto. Woodruff went on to be a sister of Loretto for more than 21 years and a co-member of Loretto for almost 43 years.
“That’s a long time and we will miss her,” Barbato said, “although we know she is still with us.”
Woodruff became Sister Marita in 1950. In 1973, Woodruff married. She wrote to the sisters to change her status to a co-membership.
Woodruff wrote, “Know that I can never not be a member of (the Loretto) society. Its people, its goals, its vision are part of my very soul.”
Englis said Woodruff and the Sisters of Loretto valued education. She said it was important to keep in mind that the student is the most important part of what they do. Englis further described Woodruff as deeply compassionate.
“She was able to counsel me personally and very generously by reminding me that in many ways our colleagues and our students become our extended family,” Englis said. “And that the legacy of teaching flows through each generation that we meet.”
Englis aspires to pass on the teaching legacy she learned from her mentor. She said she will think about Woodruff and what she did as a teacher and as theater department chair.
“I’m going to sit in her chair periodically and think about the chairs who have preceded me,” Englis said.
Reporting by Cait Lore