and Theater A Flutter
Story by Nancy Bondurant Jones
A new professor on campus in 1935 set a few hearts fluttering. Given that the State Teachers' College at Harrisonburg suffered a dearth of single men on the faculty and in the student body, his impact was no surprise. Professor Argus Tressider was tall, blond and handsome. And at 28, he bridged the usual age gap between teacher and student.
With his newly won doctorate from Cornell, Tresidder arrived to a student body fully "protected by Dean Annie Bailey Cook," Tressider, 91, said in a recent interview. "She taught them how to wear the proper clothes and how to hold teacups."
This was a decade when girls had to wear coats over gym suits and had just gotten permission to wear bobby socks. "I gave them little reason to be worried about me," Tressider says. "I think Dr. Duke, who was a wily old bird, watched me very carefully. He was a good Methodist and protective of the morals of good Virginia girls. I was not going to be involved."
The girls might have daydreamed but soon found the new professor a tough teacher. At a 50th reunion several admitted to him, "You scared the hell out of me." He hadn't meant to, but when he sat in the back of the room to critique their public speaking, he included every aspect of the performance. He dictated how to speak and how to look. Appearance had never counted before, and his comments shocked some of the girls.
"Half the class thought he was wonderful, and the other half stayed a little afraid," says Mildred Elliott ('39). "It was an exciting class. He recorded our voices, could tell where you came from by how you pronounced words. And he totally changed drama here. He brought boys in to act in male parts."
Tresidder took drama seriously when he arrived to take over Madison's Stratford Players. "Dr. Duke had raved about how fine the facilities were. When I looked at the stage, I thought ‘Oh my god, he thinks this is a great place to put on plays -- everything's wrong!'"
The stage house, the pulleys and the switchboard were adequate. The rest was a disaster, including a too-shallow stage with footlights. Tressider says, "Nobody used footlights in theater. We had to invent ways of getting light where it was supposed to be. They had two little dressing rooms so my students mixed paints, built sets, did everything in the basement of Wilson. And everybody shared the stage: dancers, glee club, all those academic processions."
Nevertheless, he produced plays that won accolades from the public. And some of the public was involved on stage. "There was high indignation when I wanted to cast men in men's roles. But Dr. Duke was reasonable about it. I promised there would be no nonsense back stage, I would keep an eye on them. We never had any trouble. I found good men -- George Aldhizer, Tommy Brock, Ernest Wilton -- Wilton was a stage director's dream man. He wanted to be an actor, loved my plays and was in many of them. I chose A.A. Milne's
Mr. Pim Passes By because I knew how good he would be as Mr. Pim."
Aldhizer became a best friend, and the two often went to New York where Broadway offered tickets for $1.10. Our Town especially impressed them. Tressider chose it for Madison. "I cast everybody in town -- it's a huge cast. I took the part of Stage Manager and must have lost 18 pounds doing that and directing," Tressider says. "When it came time for the final words, I couldn't get them out [because] it affected me so deeply. That was the finest dramatic moment I'd ever had.
"Years later I did it again in Ankara, Turkey, as a way of getting through to ordinary folks. I went through all the same emotion. I chose a professional as Emily, the Helen Hayes of the Turkish theater. Their theater is based on the German method, which exaggerates voice, action, everything. I had to retrain them. It did something for Turkish theater -- stopped the dramatic, heavy style. That was one of the achievements of my overseas program."
At 91, Tressider can look back on a life filled with achievements. His seven years at Madison brought publication of his first book, Reading to Others, plus numerous articles -- the newly ordained Ph.D. needed to prove himself. His naval service during World War II was followed by five years in industry, then work for the State Department with the U.S. Information Agency and additional books. "I had the best job anyone could possible have in the embassy," Tressider says. "I went to university groups to meet intellectuals, artists, writers, actors."
His memories of Madison include writing "at least one play a year, stylized so I could cast more women in parts. Even wrote a musical -- unusual for a one-horse school. I used Edna Shaeffer's assistance there. Clifford Marshall wrote the music. He taught instrumental and played the organ for all those church services we had at Wilson Hall."
Recently, Newsweek featured Tressider in its "My Turn" column. "There's been a remarkable response from my '15 minutes of fame' -- former students and people from all over teh world." Ironically, today he still listens to readers. Since he can't see to read, he listens to books on tape and types manuscripts that volunteers read back to him. Volunteers also walk with him about the neighborhood and enjoy his company. Now widowed, Tressider has filled his home with paintings by his beloved wife and with artifacts from all over the world.
"This is a happy house," he says, a claim supported by his recent Newsweek article. He plans to attend his 70th college reunion in June. "There are many oldsters like me, still full of creaking vitality, who do not find life boring or the sky always dark."
He's a professor we can learn from.