SAN DIEGO — An unsung hero of theater and the teaching profession will be honored today when San Diego State University renames its Main Stage Theatre for Don Powell, a professor emeritus and former chairman of the drama department.
Powell, who was instrumental in designing the school's 500-seat theater, died Sept. 21, less than a week after the university announced that he had established a trust of more than $1 million for the drama department. Powell, who was 65, had suffered from emphysema.
Today's 2:30 p.m. ceremony in the theater will include a memorial service in Powell's honor, recognizing his 30 years with the department.
"He was the true mentor of excellence, artistic and academic," said Merrill J. Lessley, dean of the College of Professional Studies and Fine Arts. Powell was known for a droll sense of humor in addition to his stage designs, which faculty members say were the equal of any in the country.
But it was Powell's aggressiveness in pushing for the new theater and for a master of fine arts degree in design, colleagues say, that helped gain the department national recognition.
"A good many of the faculty, including myself, decided to come to San Diego State rather than somewhere else because of that theater plant," said Gordon Howard, a retired drama professor.
The advanced degree in design, approved in the mid-1970s, was the first one in the California State University system, said Nick Reid, a colleague of Powell's.
Getting state officials to agree to build the 63,000-square-foot theater required a herculean effort and more than seven years of planning, say Powell's colleagues and former students.
In 1953, when Powell came to San Diego, the drama department's plays were staged in the campus little theater, "an almost useless building" which required that scenery be stored in the rain, said Huntan Sellman, now a professor emeritus, who hired Powell.
Powell and Sellman, whose speciality was lighting design, were the key players who pushed for a new theater, one that would be designed by theater professionals and not state bureaucrats.
"We had to fake things and call them other things," Sellman said. "The state architects would always say, 'You can't have a higher grid because no one else has one that high,' or more lighting circuits because no one else has that many."
"He was a Yankee horse trader," said Sue Earnest of Powell. Earnest, a retired chairman of the old Speech Arts Department, said Powell wouldn't give in when the state architects "wanted to take short cuts and do things easier. He won time after time."
Eventually Powell and Sellman prevailed, and in 1967 SDSU had its new theater. The building was selected in 1969 as "one of the outstanding university theaters in the nation" by the Architectural Council of the American Theatre Assn.
For more than 13 years of his three decades at San Diego State Powell was department chairman.
Powell, who was single, built his life around the college, colleagues said. "He had a commitment to the students," said Lessley, whom Powell hired as an assistant lighting designer. "The courses are almost exclusively cast with students. He viewed it as a learning experience. So a student in our department can play Hamlet. In other departments, that's not always the case."
Jan Manos, a professional actress and director, who teaches drama at Poway High School, was one of Powell's students.
"I remember his wit," Manos said. "You had to be kind of thick-skinned as an underclassman. But once you gave him back some, he loved you. I could not do the job I am doing today if it were not for him. He gave me really thorough preparation in every aspect of theater: community, educational and professional."
Powell, who grew up in Missouri and Iowa, was first exposed to theater through his father, who in the summer would act on the Chautauqua theater circuit. He earned his bachelor's and master's degrees in technical theater and design at the University of Iowa.
He spent his entire professional career at SDSU. In addition to teaching, he also was a theater design and equipment consultant for a number of schools and communities, including Northeast Missouri State University and Saddleback College and Laguna Community Theatre in Orange County.
Through financial and real estate investments Powell acquired a sizable estate. The trust he created will endow two chairs, one in scene design; the other will rotate among costume and lighting design and directing. The trust also created an account for scholarships for graduate students in the design program and an account to bring professional artists to the university to work with students.