A star of stage and schoolroom

Actor: Rick Stohler has found some of his biggest fans among his third-graders since returning to teaching.

October 18, 2001|By Heather Tepe | Heather Tepe,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Rick Stohler has straddled two worlds in his professional life - the theater and the classroom. Those who have seen him perform on stage or teach a room full of third-graders agree that in either arena, Stohler is a star.

A resident of Columbia, he developed a passion for performing in high school but decided on a career in education. Stohler taught third grade in Virginia from 1977 to 1983, but the lure of the spotlight drew him to performances at area dinner theaters at night.

"I was working morning, noon and night," he said. "My daughter, Brooke, was just born and I found it was too much. I left teaching and started doing dinner theater full time."

Toby Orenstein, owner and artistic director of Toby's Dinner Theatre in Columbia, said Stohler's versatility and dedication to his craft are the reasons he has performed in more than 20 productions at her theater. "He can play a leading man, a character part, a comedic role or a villain and be convincing in all of those roles," she said.

Fellow actor Terry Sweeney met Stohler 19 years ago during a production of Camelot at the Lazy Susan Dinner Theater in Woodbridge, Va. He said he believes Stohler's main strength as an actor is his voice.

"He has a beautiful baritone singing voice," Sweeney said. "Anybody who has ever heard him sing a song will never forget it. He's a well-rounded performer, which is why he has worked nonstop in this area for 20 years."

Stohler, 48, has performed as Sky Masterson in Guys and Dolls (1996), Julian Marsh in 42nd Street (1988), Juan Peron in Evita (1985 and 2000) and Captain Von Trapp in The Sound of Music (1996). "A lot of people remember him as the dentist in Little Shop of Horrors," Orenstein said. That performance was in 1986.

Through his participation in Toby's youth theater, Stohler became involved in the Labels Project - a program that goes into schools to teach children respect for diversity. After each performance, actors would go back to the classrooms and talk with the children.

"After doing that for a couple of years, it reawakened all the feelings I had about teaching," Stohler said.

He returned to the classroom in 1997, employing his dramatic skills to motivate children at Dasher Green Elementary School in Columbia. "You don't have to be a performer as a teacher, but it definitely helped me," Stohler said. "In a lot of ways, you're performing for an audience in both venues."

Diane Martin, assistant principal at Dasher Green, describes Stohler as a mentor, a motivator and "a dynamite teacher."

"I wish I had a lot more teachers just like him," she said.

When reading to his class, Stohler would adopt a different voice for each character in the book. Norma Bochinski's sons, Ben and Brian, were in Stohler's class. She said that while volunteering at the school, she would stand outside the classroom to hear Stohler read to the children.

"His voice is dynamic and strong and entertaining. In everything he does, he displays such an energy level that it's inspiring," she said. "I've told him that he could read soup labels and captivate an audience."

Bochinski said that Stohler's efforts to learn about each child make him an outstanding educator. At Christmas, Stohler - who is divorced and whose daughter is 19 - buys a book for each child in his class. Every book is tailored to that child's particular interests.

"That's so typical of him to do that," Bochinski said. "I don't think there's a child around that he couldn't win their hearts and inspire them to do their best in school."

Despite a diagnosis of renal cancer more than two years ago, Stohler continued teaching third grade at Dasher Green Elementary while performing and directing at Toby's Dinner Theatre until recently, when he became gravely ill. Stohler had a kidney removed in 1999 and has since developed a tumor on his spine.

"No one knows how he endured that pain, but every night he went on as Juan Peron and every day he taught school," Orenstein said.

"Today we are very aware of heroes in our community," Sweeney said. "I look at Rick and he is the most graceful hero I've known in my life. The two things he loves best are teaching and performing. He can't teach or perform anymore because of this illness, and he still finds great value in his life. He's shown incredible spirit and grace through all of this."

Stohler visits the school as often as he can. He said that parents and children always ask him when he will be back. "I tell them I don't know," he said. "Nobody wants me back at Dasher Green more than me."

He said that the outpouring of affection and support that he has gotten from schoolchildren and their parents throughout his illness has been touching. They have kept him supplied with meals, cards, banners and gifts, such as the handmade quilt that hangs on his living room wall. Pupils traced their hands on pieces of pink and blue cotton, and the handprints were sewn onto the quilt.

"It is exquisite," Stohler said.

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