June 9, 2006

Living a dream: Spirit of Providence fulfills
30-year wish for theater

By John Shaughnessy

CLARKSVILLE—In five minutes, Ray Day will finally live the dream that he envisioned 30 years ago.

In five minutes, Paula Robinson will once again think of her late husband, wishing he could share in this magical moment.

In five minutes, Joan Hurley will look on in wonder and joy, remembering the unexpected Christmas gift that made this special moment possible at Our Lady of Providence Jr./Sr. High School in Clarksville in southern Indiana.

It is the evening of April 21, 2006, the opening night of the school’s new $2.5 million performing arts center. In five minutes, the curtains will open, starting the audience on a journey that will blend the touches of magic, love, heartbreak, hope and faith that can be found in the musical Cats.

Off-stage, the story is just as compelling as those same qualities—magic, love, heartbreak, hope and faith—also mark the story of how a small Catholic high school finally sees one of its longest dreams become a reality.

The unexpected gift

Before the curtains open for the beginning of the show, Joan Hurley remembers a meeting that was scheduled just before Christmas in 2004—a meeting that she approached with dread.

As the new president of Providence at the time, Hurley knew the high school had long had the dream of having a performing arts center that could showcase its theater program. She also knew that Providence graduate Paula Robinson had pledged—six months earlier—$1 million for the building of that center.

Robinson had asked for the December meeting, wanting to know how the fundraising for the center was progressing. Hurley dreaded telling her the answer: The school was still short $500,000 for the project to begin.

“What we needed was a half a million dollars to fall out of the sky,” Hurley recalled. “I prayed earnestly about it. I prayed to Our Lady because it’s her school.”

When the meeting started, Hurley worried about disappointing Robinson when she told her about the lack of funds. Before Hurley could share the bad news, Robinson mentioned that she wanted to donate an additional $500,000 to the project.

“We had our miracle,” Hurley said.

Influences in the wings

Before the curtain opens, Paula Robinson thinks about how much her late husband, Sam, would have enjoyed the theater’s opening night—from the looks of awe when people enter the theater’s lobby to the excitement that keeps building as showtime nears.

Then a smile crosses her face as she believes that, somehow, her partner of 25 years is witnessing the scene at the Sam & Paula Robinson Performing Arts Center.

“He was a very giving person,” she said. “I’m sure if he was alive, he would have been very happy and very willing to do what I did. He believed in giving back to the community. He believed in education.”

Before he died in 2003, Sam Robinson was the co-founder of an electronics company that was later sold to a large corporation. He sent his two children to Providence. He constantly supported fundraising efforts for the school’s theater program. He also appreciated the sense of faith and family that the school fostered.

Paula Robinson had known those same qualities in another man. As she talks of the performing arts center, she also recalls her father, who worked two jobs—as a laborer and a construction worker—to put her through high school at Providence and through nursing school.

“I’m a country girl,” said the 1965 Providence graduate. “I didn’t have money growing up. My father worked hard for us. He took us to church. He always told us the morals and values we should live with.”

Those values influenced her decision to make the performing arts center possible.

“Providence has been trying to have a theater for many years,” she said. “They’ve had several fundraisers, but there have always been other needs that came first. I figured if this was going to happen, someone needed to step forward.”

Behind the scenes

Before the curtain opens for the production of Cats, Ray Day thinks about the sense of pride and purpose that marks many Catholic schools.

Day has felt the deep “Blue Pride” of Providence as a graduate of the school in 1957, as a teacher who returned to the school in 1962, as its musical director through the 1960s and ‘70s, and as its development director now.

“There’s something different about the Providence ‘Blue Pride’ tradition,” he said. “I think it’s because we’re down here by ourselves. We do not have another Catholic school we compete against. There’s such a deep-seated family tradition here.”

Day has again witnessed the magic that he believes has always surrounded the school’s theater program.

The magic was there when volunteers and students made most of the costumes for Cats, when local hairdressers volunteered to style the wigs for the performers, when a parent group worked for a year to raise funds for the musical and when women from local parishes knitted leg- and hand-warmers for each performer.

Day also saw the “magic” appear after Paula Robinson made her donation. With the Koetter Construction Company and architect Gilbert Campbell leading the way, Providence supporters made in-kind gifts that gave the school a state-of-the-art theater far beyond its $2.5 million cost.

For Day, the theater is a dream he first envisioned 30 years ago.

“I wanted to do this in 1976, but there was no way we could raise the money,” Day recalled. “We’ve always played varsity theater, and now we have a varsity arena to play it in.

“There’s something about theater for kids this age that has always been a good experience at this school. At a time when kids are growing like crazy, they learn they have talents they didn’t think they had. They see they have friends who are more talented than they thought they were. And they realize they can create something far greater than any one of them can do individually. And you don’t have to win or lose to make it happen.”

Lasting memories

The curtains open and the performers take the stage under the direction of the school’s current performing arts director, Dale Durham. When the show ends on opening night, the 67 student-performers are bathed in an outpouring of cheers

and applause from the audience in the 561-seat theater.

The scene is repeated for another five sold-out performances of Cats.

The glow of the experience is still on the faces of Sasha Gaona and Stephen Gronotte weeks later when the Providence students talk about being part of the performance, part of the theater program and part of the history of the theater’s opening.

“I absolutely love Providence theater so much,” Sasha said. “It’s like a home for me. I feel so accepted.”

“So many people’s dreams went into it,” said Stephen, a member of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish in New Albany. “It was the culmination of everyone who came before us and the prelude to everything that will come after us.”

The memory of opening night still brings a smile to Day as he walks into the empty theater weeks later. He points to a lone light in the middle of the stage, a light that has been shining since the end of the Cats production.

Day says the light shines as a symbol of the Broadway hope, the theater belief that there will always be another opening night, another show.

He also says it’s a symbol of the hope and the belief that continues to guide the Catholic school known as Providence. †


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