Wearing a navy blue suit, black shoes and a blue, green, pink and white plaid tie, Peter Sargent, the dean of Webster University’s Leigh Gerdine College of Fine Arts, stepped into City Hall. Sargent had been invited to accept the 2014 Lifetime of Achievement in the Arts Award, which was presented to him by Webster Groves Mayor Gerry Welch.
The “Man in Plaid,” as many of his colleagues refer to him, stood in City Hall Friday Oct. 10 to accept the award which was created by the Webster Groves Arts Commission in 2007. The award is meant to honor citizens of Webster Groves for their contribution and excellence in the arts.
This is the first year a member of the theater arts community has been awarded. The Council has previously awarded painters, writers, musicians and sculptors.
“Peter’s name just floated to the top,” Welch said. “He is such a giant in his field and we were glad to have someone in another one of the arts be represented.”
The seats in City Hall were nearly filled with Sargent’s friends, Repertory Theatre of St. Louis members and Webster faculty and students. His family sat in the front row; his son and two grandchildren wearing their matching plaid ties.
“I’ve never seen him not wearing plaid,” freshman lighting design major Kylee Loera said while laughing. “I wear a flower in my hair every day and he came up to me and he said ‘So, do you wear flowers like, uh I don’t know, one would wear plaid?’
Loera has known Sargent, or “P. Sarg” as she likes to call him, since she was a freshman in high school at Las Vegas Academy in 2010. Sargent traveled to Las Vegas Academy with a program he’s involved in called National Unified Auditions. There, while wearing a full plaid suit, he pitched the idea of Loera coming to Webster. Unified allows students to audition for multiple undergraduate theater programs at once.
Sargent is also a member of several other organizations including the National Theatre Conference, Dance St. Louis, Shakespeare Festival, Insight Theatre, the Arts and Education Council and the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis.
“His other nickname around the office is ‘Energizer Bunny,’” Dottie Marshall Englis, chair of the Webster Conservatory of Theatre Arts said. “He’s the first one in and the last one to leave. And the rest of us are all left standing exhausted in his dust.”
Englis was hired by Sargent 35 years ago and she said he has always been a tireless advocate for students and artists in the St. Louis and Webster Groves communities.
A lifetime of humble achievements
Englis described Sargent as having confidence and humility, which made him different from many others. He supports the students and faculty like no other, she said, and his lighting cues can punctuate a moment better than she has seen before.
“He personifies the arts on this campus,” Englis said. “He is the art on this campus. I dont know if we will ever see anybody like him ever again and we are all trying to be like him”
With an accent of plaid (or a full plaid suit) and his humble demeanor, Sargent said he is just lucky to represent the faculty at Webster because he said they are the ones who make everything happen.
“I think Webster is a standard of excellence,” Sargent said. “And I am lucky to represent that standard.”
Sargent was awarded the Missouri Arts Award from the Missouri Arts Council and the state of Missouri earlier this year. He was so shocked by the news he thought he was being tricked.
“I thought it was a prank call,” Sargent said. “I never felt I was at that level. So when the call came it was so far out of the blue. I had to wait to believe it or tell anybody until I got it in writing.”
The award is given to people who have made a profound and lasting contribution to the state’s climate artistically and culturally.
An award long overdue
Jeffrey Carter, chair of the Webster Department of Music said it was time for Webster Groves to honor Sargent. He said Sargent has been on nearly every board in town and every arts board in the St. Louis region since he came to Webster in 1966. Sargent hired Carter over six years ago.
“Certainly, it’s time for the town he has lived in for all of his adult life to recognize him as well,” Carter said. “This award is clearly a recognition of a lifetime of achievement and honestly, in Peter’s case, a lifetime of service to the community.”
Artistic Director of the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis Steven Woolf said Sargent, or “Peter Plaid” as he is referred to at several national conferences, has been the lighting designer for over 120 shows at the Repertory Theatre alone. His credits include “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” “Sweeny Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” “Much Ado About Nothing,” “Anything Goes,” “Urinetown, the Musical,” “The Mousetrap,” and most recently “Noises Off”.
“All my life I’ve been backstage,” Sargent said. “I like to watch the other people get the recognition for the work they do so well.”
Now in his 48th season at the Repertory Theatre, Sargent said he has done lighting design for the same show three or four times but it is always a new experience. He said he still finds it fun to “bring the words on the page to life.”
Carter said Sargent gives the faculty the “rope” they need to complete their tasks while supporting them on the way and encouraging them to dream.
“I’ve described Peter to many others as an ‘empire builder,’” Carter said. “One doesn’t grow a college of fine arts like the Leigh Gerdine College of Fine Arts without having a lot of strategic thoughts, without building alliances, without deciding that we’re going to build something that is greater than the sum of its parts, and he’s done that.”
Sargent received his BFA from Carnegie Mellon University in 1959 and his MFA from Yale University in 1963. He has been a member of the Webster Groves community since 1966 when he came to Webster College to help found the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. He was appointed chair of the fine arts department in 1969 and promoted to dean in 1995.