As a young actor in New York in the 1960s, John Weckesser dreamed of running a theater where people could creatively express themselves and kick off a career to become professionals in their field.
His wish came true in 1975, when he took over the theater department at the College of Santa Fe. Weckesser, who served as chair of that department for more than 30 years, died Sunday morning following an illness and hospitalization that lasted over a month, his wife Susan said. He was 76 years old. The cause of death has not yet been determined.
“John brought a high sense of quality to the department,” said Stuart Kirk, one of the former presidents of the college, which has since undergone a change of owners and is now known as Santa Fe University of Art and Design. “John brought together an outstanding permanent faculty and an amazing array of visiting faculty members who would come to visit with students or give lectures or do a little mentoring.
“He was one of those rare people who was not only a visionary, but also a great manager.”
Weckesser is credited with injecting new life into the theater department in the mid-1970s by hiring the best professional teachers he could get and building student enrollment by actively recruiting from high school drama programs in New Mexico and surrounding states. He drew theater, television and film luminaries, such as Kim Stanley, Gregory Peck and Carol Burnett, to the theater to conduct workshops or teach classes.
Building up the department, he said in a 2005 interview with Pasatiempo, “was shaping up to be my mountain to climb, career-wise.”
Weckesser was born in 1941 in Doylestown, Ohio. He earned a bachelor’s degree in theater from the College of Wooster in Ohio in 1963 and his master’s degree in theater from Wayne State University in Detroit two years later. He started his career in theater as an assistant casting director at New York’s Repertory Theatre of Lincoln Center in the 1960s and later became general manager of The Soul and Latin Theater, a mobile street theater project.
In 1972 he decided to relocate to Santa Fe after landing a job in the College of Santa Fe’s theater department. At that time, the department had fewer than two dozen students who also built the sets, ran the lights and put together costumes and props, Weckesser told Pasatiempo. But the college had “a terrific benefactress in the wings,” he said — Greer Garson, one of the cinematic queens of Hollywood and best known for her Oscar-winning performance in the 1942 war drama Mrs. Miniver.
Garson threw her moral support and name recognition behind Weckesser and the department (the college’s main stage theater is named after her).
“He was very close to Greer Garson and she loved him,” Susan Weckesser said. “She was a tremendous influence for him and she felt like he was really getting students trained to become professionals in theater — not just in acting, but set design, music and dance.”
He also expanded the department’s student recruitment efforts, often driving to high schools in New Mexico, Colorado, Texas and Arizona to interview theater directors about promising students, who Weckesser would then encourage to audition.
“He had the mind of a manager,” Tim Weckesser, John’s brother, said. “He used to say, ‘Theater people are dreamers. I like to be around them and help them realize their dreams.’ ”
In 1991 college officials named the smaller studio theater on campus after John Weckesser, which he found amusing because, he said, “when it was announced, a lot of people thought I had died.”
Weckesser served as chair of the theater department from 1975 to 2005, and then returned to work there again from 2008 to 2010. In 2012 Backstage magazine named it one of the top five theater training programs outside of Los Angeles in the United States.
Besides his wife and brother, John Weckesser is survived by two stepchildren, Kirk Rhinehart and Kristin Rhinehart Wolf, as well as several grandchildren and one great grandchild.
The family plans a public memorial service at 10 a.m. Saturday, Feb. 17 in the Greer Garson Theatre on the college campus.
Contact Robert Nott at 505-986-3021 or email@example.com