April 8, 2020

Webster community reflects on Peter Sargent’s impact

“Peter left a legacy, a precious gift we must preserve, nurture and grow,” President Julian Schuster said. “He defined art at Webster: flamboyant yet very modest, jovial, yet perceptive and thoughtful, and most importantly, kind and warm – a friend indeed.”

Senior stage management major Gabby Galvan remembers Peter Sargent always attended technical rehearsal to give students feedback before the opening of a Webster University Conservatory of Theatre Arts show. 

When rehearsal began for the Conservatory’s play “Bomb-itty of Errors” the week following Sargent’s death, Galvan said while students knew he had passed, they still expected his presence. 

“We all kind of expected him to walk in the building and be like, ‘Ha ha, I was joking,’” Galvan said. “It was really weird because we were like, ‘He would usually be here. He’s not here. What now?’”

Sargent started his career at Webster in 1966 to run the lighting and design stage management program. A year after his arrival, he founded the Conservatory of Theatre Arts. He then became the founding dean of the Webster University Leigh Gerdine College of Fine Arts in 1995. 

Earlier this year, he stepped down from his position and worked as a faculty member in the lighting and design stage management program. Sargent passed away Nov. 27 at 82 years old. 

Chair of the Conservatory of Theatre Arts Dottie Marshall Englis worked with Sargent for almost 40 years. She said Sargent would be remembered for his dedication to students. 

“He was always one of the first people, if not the first person, in the office,” Englis said. “He was one of the last people to leave at the end of the day. He was truly dedicated to what would be best for the students. That was always the first thing he thought of.”

Meeting the man in plaid 

When students and faculty first met Sargent, one trait stood out. Nicknamed “the man in plaid” by the Webster community, Englis said Sargent’s colorful outfits showcased his personality. 

“He never got lost in a crowd,” Englis said. “It’s colorful and kind of happy. It kind of reflects Peter’s consistently positive take on life.” 

Peter Sargent poses for a picture with actress Marsha Mason (right) at a university event in April 1998. Photo courtesy of Webster University archives.

Galvan remembered students would question Sargent when they thought he was not wearing his favorite pattern.  

“There were times when we would see him, and he wasn’t wearing plaid,” Galvan said. “We were like, ‘Peter, where’s your plaid?’ He would pull up his pant leg and have plaid socks on. He’s like, ‘It’s there.’”

During his time at Webster, Sargent watched students’ auditions both at conferences around the country and at the university. Galvan remembered Sargent was recognizable in plaid even while conducting interviews outside of Webster. 

Sargent was Galvan’s first contact at the university. When he met her for the first time during her interview at Webster, she said Sargent welcomed her with a hug. 

Sargent’s emphasis on family during their first interaction, Galvan remembered, made her choose Webster over another school she was considering. 

“Peter made it sound so much like you won’t be with your actual family, but you’ll be with ‘our family,’” Galvan said. “That’s what [the Conservatory] is. We’re not a group. We’re a family.”

More than an administrator

Chair of the Department of Music Jeffrey Carter was hired by and worked under Sargent for 11 years. Carter said he viewed Sargent as both a mentor and a father figure during his time at Webster.

Carter said Sargent was one of the most humane people he has ever met. He remembered Sargent always approached interactions with kindness and consideration.

“He was kind to everybody,” Carter said. “He cared deeply about people’s success.”

Musical theatre graduate Austin Jacobs said he and his twin brother would not have finished school at Webster if it were not for Sargent. The children of a single parent, Jacobs said they almost had to put their degrees on hold during their sophomore year due to financial reasons.

“We called Peter,” Jacobs said. “He sent out some emails and found the scholarships my brother and I needed to return to school.” 

Jacobs remembered his story was not unique. He said Sargent often advocated for students who could not afford to attend Webster’s program.

Galvan took two classes with Sargent during his time as a professor in the program. She said during class, students would talk about the shows they were working on, and Sargent would give them advice on different issues they encountered. 

Galvan said Sargent’s advice in class was helpful when approaching difficult problems. Most of her opportunities to learn from Sargent, however, were during conversations outside of class. 

“His teaching style was, ‘Learn by your own mistakes,’” Galvan said. “He’d help you after you made those mistakes. He’d give you the guidance that you needed when you asked for it.”

A lasting legacy 

In a statement from the university, President Julian Schuster said Sargent left a lasting impact at Webster. 

“Peter left a legacy, a precious gift we must preserve, nurture and grow,” Schuster said. “He defined art at Webster: flamboyant yet very modest, jovial, yet perceptive and thoughtful, and most importantly, kind and warm – a friend, indeed.”

Carter said Sargent’s legacy at Webster is shown through the people whose lives he touched. He said 13 generations of students, as well as faculty, were impacted by Sargent. 

For Carter, this impact lies in the way he treats others. Carter said this change was directly influenced by the kindness he saw Sargent give toward him and others at the university. 

“He took time to quietly teach me,” Carter said. “I think I’m safe in saying the way that I deal with a lot of people in my life now is softer and gentler than it was when I came here.”

Galvan said Sargent always stressed the importance of remaining humble and being kind to everyone she met in her career. She considered Sargent the center point in a large network of alumni who continue to be helpful for current students. 

When graduates came back to St. Louis, Galvan said they would make a trip to Webster specifically to speak with Sargent. 

“It was like everybody had come home and they were all saying ‘hi’ to Grandpa,” Galvan said. “Everybody wanted to tell him what they were doing. Everybody wanted to make sure that he knew they’re thriving because of what he taught them.”

A university spokesperson said Webster is working with the family to plan an on-campus memorial. A date has not been set. 

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