Fletcher Collins Jr, legendary Mary Baldwin University professor emeritus of theatre, hardly paused for “old age.” At 75, “Fletch,” as he was called by friends and family, was designated Cultural Laureate of Virginia. At 90, he shunned the idea of “acting old” in a local newspaper article. In his late 90s, he celebrated the 50th anniversary of Oak Grove Theater, the secluded woodland stage he created with his wife, Margaret, which has nurtured countless actors and booked sold-out performances for decades.
Those close to Collins knew he was getting older, but his unceasing energy and drive to be involved in new projects seemed to defy mortality. His unfailing spirit and vitality made it that much harder for people to say good-bye.
Fletcher Collins, 98, died in his Staunton home May 6. His funeral service will be held at 2 p.m. May 8 at Trinity Episcopal Church in Staunton. Burial will be at 10 a.m. May 9 at Thornrose Cemetery.
Always surrounded by music, Collins’ former student, world-famous soprano Custer LaRue ’74, stayed at his bedside through his last night, singing. Margaret Collins and their four sons, Christopher “Kit,” Brandon, Fletcher III, and Francis, had given him a music party just days earlier, singing and playing the old family favorites at their Staunton home, The Oaks. The house has long been a place where music is celebrated, plays are performed, and the community gathers for fellowship. The family will host a celebration of Fletcher’s life at The Oaks following the church service May 8.
Collins’ final large-scale project was to publish the first complete collection of Shakespeare’s songs from plays in the Bard’s First Folio Songs from Shakespeare’s Repertory. Collins believed that most of the Bard’s original songs had been omitted from modern productions, and he argued that they served an integral purpose. The project began in the 1920s when Collins read a book about the history of Renaissance music while a student at Yale; his book was finally published in 2004. He hoped the small spiral-bound book would be a “reference actors and directors can keep in the hip pocket” for rehearsals, as he said in an article in Staunton’s The News Leader.
Born in 1906 in Cleveland, Ohio, Fletcher wrote in a 1997 autobiographical summary that he was born late on November 19, but his birth certificate reads November 20. Regardless of the exact date, he continued the autobiographical sketch, writing, “Childhood happy, with family and schools.” Collins earned his undergraduate degree and Ph.D. at Yale University. The education was first-rate, but he was quick to admit that the most fortunate event at Yale was when meeting the woman who would become his wife. This April, Fletcher and Margaret Collins celebrated their 73rd wedding anniversary.
Before settling down – they have stayed rooted in the Shenandoah Valley for more than 50 years – on their farm just north of Staunton, Fletcher Collins had already built a respected reputation for scholarship and love of music and drama. He completed his dissertation at Yale, “Chaucer’s Understanding of Music,” briefly taught English at Montclair (New Jersey) State Teacher’s College, and moved on to infuse the Aurthurdale, West Virginia coal-mining community with music and performance. While at Arthurdale, the Collinses met and worked with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt – who helped create Arthurdale and other planned mining communities – and Fletch began collecting, recording, and transcribing traditional folksongs.
Collins taught English and led the theatre department at Elon College in North Carolina, from 1936 to 1942, where he established Little Chapel Theater. He continued collecting folksongs from relatives of Elon students and other notable balladeers, and he and Margaret performed a weekly series of folksongs on a radio station in Greensboro. Fletcher donated several hundred of the recordings he collected during his lifetime to the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress. He also nurtured a growing interest in reviving medieval plays and setting them to music. He authored four books on the topic.
In 1946, after Fletcher’s WWII stint as an organizational manager for Fairchild Aircraft and Republic Aviation, the Collinses made their home at Pennyroyal Farm, and he started his 30-year tenure at Mary Baldwin University. He would soon recruit Mary Baldwin students to perform during summers under the canopy of trees at Oak Grove, the outdoor theater he and Margaret created so their playwriting and directing would not need to take a seasonal hiatus. Oak Grove is one of the oldest amateur outdoor theaters in the country.
Linda Dolly Hammack ’62 and Aurelia Crawford ’74 were two of the students, dubbed “Oak Grove Girls,” who frequently performed at the venue. Hammack and Crawford were also among the Mary Baldwin students and community members involved in Theater Wagon, a traveling troupe of actors created by the Collinses that performed plays – including several written by Margaret – locally and abroad.
In 1979, Theater Wagon performed Fletcher Collins’ transcription of Visit to the Sepulcher (Visitatio Sepulchri), a 12th century music-drama that recounts the story of the first Easter. The piece was filmed in France in 1979 in the Abbaye St. Benoit de Fleury in what is presumed to be its original setting. It received the Cine Golden Eagle Award in 1981 and was a finalist in the American Film Festival.
“We went into every project with Margaret and Fletch with the idea that it would be fun, and that it would turn out better than we ever expected,” Crawford said. “You wanted to do your best for him, not because he would be angry if you didn’t, but because you didn’t want to let him down.”
Hammack eloquently summarized his teaching and directing style: “He led with love. He didn’t tell you what to do; he listened while you told him what you wanted to do, and then he told you to go for it.”
Fletcher Collins is credited with establishing the modern drama department at Mary Baldwin University. For his numerous contributions, the theater in Deming Fine Arts Building was named in his honor in 1983. In 1997, Margaret and Fletcher – ever inseperable – were given the Algernon Sydney Sullivan Non-Student Award. One of the highest honors bestowed by Mary Baldwin University, the award recognizes spiritual qualities, nobility of character, and unselfish service to the community.
At least one of Collins’ courses at the college was so popular that students practically had to sign up as freshmen to take the class as seniors, said Ulysse Deportes, professor emeritus of art. Desportes worked with Collins for many years at Mary Baldwin and on other theater productions. “He lived and breathed theater,” Desportes said.
Another Mary Baldwin colleague, Joe Garrison, called Collins “a Renaissance man, in the best sense of the term.” He sang baritone in many of Collins’ medieval plays and performed at Folger Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, D.C. Garrison, professor emeritus of English, remembered a faculty talent show when Collins showed his true personality. “The room was so warm that it threw Fletch’s fiddle down about two octaves, so the song we had prepared to play sounded awful, but we just played through it and laughed the whole time.”
Collins’ former student, Theresa Southerington ’72, was encouraged by him to apply for his job at Mary Baldwin after his retirement in 1977. She got the position, and she has worked at the college as professor of theatre for 28 years.
“I can’t fill his shoes, but I am at least attempting to follow in his footsteps,” said Southerington, who has also acted, directed, and produced many shows at Oak Grove. Much of the performing arts in the area grew out of what he and Margaret created, including ShenanArts, Waynesboro Players, and the Oak Grove music festival, she said. “They planted the seeds and then let others nurture and take ownership of them. Their work will not vanish when they are no longer here to continue it.”
Undoubtedly, there are many things about Fletcher Collins not noted here – his stint as a bat boy for the Cleveland Indians, his award for Distinguished Service to Theater in Virginia, and his work as editorial advisor on numerous books and magazines, to cite a few.
Virginia Francisco ’64, a student and, later, colleague of Collins at Mary Baldwin, referred to him as “Mr. Theater” in a tribute in the Mary Baldwin University Magazine in 1977, when he left his post. “For all these roles, Fletch has special qualities of faith and joy – faith in the ability of students and teachers, amateurs and professionals, women and men, to tackle demanding projects ?not alone, but in cooperation with him,” she wrote.
He was more than the sum of those activities and awards. He was spirited, scholarly, and unstoppable. He was, simply, “Fletch.”