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The Feeling We Could Do Anything

I am the second of three generations of Laboratory School graduates. My father graduated from the Lab School during the Roaring Twenties—when the school was at Sabin Hall on campus. I went to nursery school and kindergarten in about 1950 when those fine classrooms were where the Rod Library stands today. We four- and five-year-olds walked through the campus with the big college students. Back then we took rest on our rugs, and, if you were really good, you would get to rest with the guinea pig. How proud we were to be the first first grade at the new Malcolm Price Laboratory School down the hill. When John and I married, we felt sure we wanted our son to have the Lab School experience, which is how Jackson became one of the class of 1987.

To be a Lab School student was an empowering experience. I liked the idea of being a “guinea pig” for education—as we often were called. New ideas and experiment were in the air. They were always trying out educational innovations. We tried an early version of the computer that had a lot of paper parts (as I recall). We started Spanish in third grade, and when we got to junior high and high school we had the kind of curriculum schools still strive for today: one hour of music every day (if we wished); one hour of physical education every day. Our teachers were rightly skeptical of traditional “A” through “F” grades—and so we had a more detailed and clearer system.

Today, when so many people fear change, I feel I grew up, not only expecting change, but embracing it. This makes life interesting and fun. The school fostered a “can do” feeling. Its small size helped. Co-curricular activities interwove tightly with the curriculum, so when you took Mr. Butzier’s ninth grade English class, you naturally found yourself entering the State Speech Contest (in one category or another; often several). You were in Les Hale’s chorus during class time, but then in the Girl’s Glee Club too—or in state music events. Everybody did everything: band, orchestra, drama, sports, even science and chess club. No one thought this was unusual. I grew up thinking that’s what everyone did. The teachers seemed to assume you could do whatever arose—build a set, sew a costume, sing, dance, debate—and they quietly helped you succeed. During the summer of my freshman year, I had the privilege of going to Ken Butzier’s and Les Hale’s first summer music and drama camp. High school students from Dike, Waverly, Hudson, as well as from Waterloo and Cedar Falls actually did a full repertory season during those eight weeks. I worked on costumes for the play “Mrs. McThing”; did a song and dance number taught me by Les Hale for the Variety Show; and (if you can believe it) was the choreographer as well as a dancer and actor (the awful laugher named Gerty) in the musical “Oklahoma.” As I look back, I suspect at age 15 I didn’t even know what a choreographer was. But Mr. Butzier and Mr. Hale made me choreographer and (somehow—they must have given me a lot of help) we delivered the Dream Ballet. That summer we did a play, a musical, and a variety show in eight weeks—and thought nothing of it.

As a member of the MPLS Class of 1965, I had the joy of partaking in the first years of the Butzier-Hale magic, since they came in 1960. In 9th and 10th-grade English, Ken Butzier taught us all to speak—with both notecards and poise. As a result, when we entered college we either passed out of “Introduction to Speech” or found it an easy, easy “A.”

A hallmark of Ken’s and Les’s theatre and music legacy was the high-quality of material they chose. Ken directed Lab School productions of The Diary of Anne Frank, Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, The Miracle Worker, The Skin of Our Teeth, A Man for All Seasons, The Madwoman of Chaillot, Antigone, Shakespeare’s As You Like It and Twelfth Night—among many others. The two co-directed Oklahoma, South Pacific, Annie Get Your Gun, Guys and Dolls, The Music Man, My Fair Lady, Fiddler on the Roof, Hello Dolly and other shows, and showcased student talent in slick variety shows. The peak, perhaps, came in 1980 when the pair co-directed a special Les and Collette adaptation (and English translation) for high school students of Mozart’s beloved comic opera The Marriage of Figaro.

Most of all, Butzier and Hale imbued us with their love of theatre and music. Many students followed in their footsteps and became professional musicians or theatre artists. Most of the rest of us kept theatre and music alive across our days. In graduate school when I had to pick 3 “areas” of speciality, I immediately chose “Modern Drama” to aid me as a (now) 40-year newspaper drama critic. More striking is the story of my classmate, Bruce Wheaton. Bruce earned a Ph.D. in linguistics and became one of the top Vice Presidents at the University of Iowa, but throughout his long career he also wrote plays—and directed plays—and continues to do so.

The love for theatre and music—so passionately planted in us before age 18—grew and flourished and for many of us, has never died. The belief that experiment should be part of one’s life is priceless—only matched by the better feeling: “You can do it. Why not try?” I hope this powerful legacy will be revived in the coming years.


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