Scholarship event honors teacher's memory

Annual cabaret celebrates educator's life and helps Cradlerock students

Howard Live

August 12, 2004|By Jen DeGregorio | Jen DeGregorio,SUN STAFF

When Rick Stohler, a third-grade teacher at Columbia's Dasher Green Elementary and a local performance artist, died of cancer in April 2002 at the age of 48, Terry Sweeney, Stohler's life partner, wondered how he would conquer his grief.

A few months later, Sweeney started a project that he and Dasher Green teachers had talked about during the last days of Stohler's illness: a scholarship in Stohler's honor.

Sweeney said the scholarship project has helped him to cope with Stohler's death while memorializing Stohler's life. Sweeney combined Stohler's two greatest loves - theater and children - to raise money for the Rick Stohler Scholarship Fund, which sends a financially challenged third-grader from Cradlerock (formerly Dasher Green) to a summer arts camp and to performances in Baltimore and Washington throughout the school year.

A year ago, Sweeney gathered Stohler's friends and other local actors to produce a free benefit cabaret that narrated Stohler's life through songs. After the performance at Toby's Dinner Theatre, where Sweeney and Stohler performed together for more than 15 years, an auction and other donations raised nearly $8,000.

"What better way than to host a cabaret?" Sweeney said.

Last year's success gave Sweeney confidence to turn the cabaret into a yearly tradition, and Monday night marks the second benefit at Toby's. The evening will begin at 6 p.m. with a silent auction, followed at 8 p.m. with the cabaret.

Sweeney used last year's money to sponsor a scholarship student and had enough left over to buy violins for two other Cradlerock third-graders, new microphones and a mixer for the school, and gifts at Christmastime for a local family in need.

Toby Orenstein, who owns Toby's Dinner Theatre and founded the summer arts camp at Columbia Center for Theatrical Arts, also offered to sponsor a second scholarship student each year.

"If ever there was a time to support arts in our school system, it's now," said Sweeney, explaining that arts programs often get cut when school systems are dealing with tight budgets.

Stohler brought the arts into his classroom at Dasher Green, as well as other schools. Even when he took a decade off from teaching in 1983 to focus on acting, Stohler devoted most of his time to children's theater and an acting troupe from Toby's that performed at local schools. Sweeney said that work inspired Stohler to go back to teaching in 1994.

Hannah Vogel, a former student of Stohler's, said Stohler's creative teaching method helped her master her worst subject.

"I remember him just getting me interested in math, just helping me to see the fun aspects of it," Hannah said, recalling the math relays Stohler would put on the chalk board.

"Definitely, his acting ability showed through in his teaching style," said Hannah, who is entering ninth grade.

Stohler is remembered fondly for one stunt he pulled to get his pupils' attention: tap dancing on desks. The table dance happened before Hannah's time, but she knows the tale well because it has been passed down to Cradlerock third-graders for years.

Stohler certainly left a lasting impression, and Sweeney wanted to be sure that his lessons did not fade with time.

"The main idea of the scholarship is to change kids' lives by exposing them to the arts," Sweeney said. "If you expose kids to the arts at that early stage of life, it gives them a dream."

The scholarship cemented the dreams of Sarah Vogel, last year's scholarship winner and Hannah's younger sister. Sarah, a ballet and tap dancer, said she thought she wanted to be an actress before winning the scholarship. She now knows it for a fact.

"I was really surprised at how many shows we went to [with the scholarship]," said Sarah, who met Stohler when she was 3 years old but cannot remember him. Her favorite show was Fame, partly because she got to meet the actors.

Attending arts camp this summer at Toby's also affected Sarah. "I think I learned how to act better, a lot. And also some dancing that I didn't know before," she said.

Daniel Hyman also won a scholarship last year. Two years ago, money donated informally after Stohler's death funded scholarships for Shanna McKay and Julian Wiegfield.

Sweeney, who picks the winners based on teacher recommendations, said he wants to eventually extend the scholarship to more children from different schools.

Sweeney, who choreographs and arranges the music for the cabaret, said the performance will focus on Stohler's "journey" through the last years of his life.

Julian and Sarah will perform along with Stohler's friends from the acting community.

"Not only the themes of the cabaret but the people in it are important to Rick," Sweeney said. "People that don't know Rick and don't know what his journey was in the last years of his life will walk out knowing more about him."

But while the themes will reflect Stohler's life and loves, Sweeney said, they are also universal so that people who have never met him can relate to the show.

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