Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part story regarding Tom Anderson and the sixth-grade musicals he directed at Soldotna Elementary School. Story one, May 29, focused on the 18 years of the much-beloved musicals at the school. This week is about Anderson and his lasting impact on his students and community.
By Jenny Neyman
Tom Anderson could make any situation funny.
This is not hyperbole.
He never failed to liven up a Monday morning for his co-workers at Soldotna Elementary School, or alleviate the tension of the end of the school year. Fellow actors in the many plays in which he performed weren’t bothered by stage fright so much as the needling anticipation that Anderson was going to bust out with an unscripted ad lib that would dissolve them in laughter along with the audience.
He could mine sketch comedy gold from the most droning and maudlin of professional-development field trips.
Even life and death situations elicited wry observations, and his own health decline was handled with the grace of his humor.
Anderson could bring levity to memorial service. On Saturday at SoEl, he did so at his own, as colleagues, students, family and friends gathered to give a final ovation to a beloved local entertainer.
Anderson, who died May 7, has much to be remembered for — devotion to his wife, Leanne, daughters Kari and Kelly, and grandchildren Thomas, Rebekah and Jazmyne; his 20-plus years of teaching, coaching and subbing at SoEl; performing in community theater; and being one of the central figures in SoEl’s 18-year tradition of producing elaborate, high-quality, widely attended and well-loved musicals with each year’s sixth-grade class.
Behind the scenes Anderson contributed his writing, directing and set-making skills to the productions. He also performed in them, enthralling audiences with his big, booming voice, unhesitant commitment to his character, sharp comedic wit, animated physical presentation and a penchant for silliness and irrepressible mischievousness.
Memories of Anderson’s Elvis-like sham swagger as the Cowardly Lion in the Kenai Performers’ community production of “The Wiz” in 2003, his over-the-top mugging as the “Mad Hatter” in the school’s production of “Alice in Wonderland” in 1988, his booming bravado as Daddy Warbucks in “Annie,” or his sight gag of periodically swapping hands bearing his hook as Captain Hook in the school’s 1998 production of “Peter Pan” — just to see if anyone would notice — stick out in local memories as prominently as did the bristly reddish mutton chops from his cheeks in the 1970s and ’80s.
And on Saturday attendees had a chance to travel down that memory lane — yellow-bricked as it was in the school’s “Wizard of Oz” productions — as organizers showed clips of Anderson’s various performances over the years and former students and one of his daughters got up to reprise songs from their sixth-grade experiences in tribute to Anderson. And also to dedicate a plaque in Anderson’s honor which will hang in the school’s gym, where Anderson coached and taught physical education, and staged musicals.
Marc Berezin, emcee for Saturday’s event and a colleague of Anderson’s, said he often runs into former students of Anderson’s, now grown, in the community, and they all remember him as one of their favorite and most-inspirational instructors.
“So many of them said practically the same thing to me in different times and different ways and across the years — that, essentially, this changed my life. Some kids went into theater because they discovered a love of theater, some kids became just way more self-confident having had that experience on stage and went on to great things, and they blame Tom. So that’s quite a thing to be remembered for,” he said.
That was evidenced by the many written tributes displayed in the school’s lobby, many sent from former students. Anderson taught third grade at SoEl from 1976 to 1986, then taught physical education and coached basketball and volleyball, and was integrally involved in the school’s 18 years of sixth-grade musicals, staged from 1980 to 1998, when Anderson retired.
“I had Tom as a elementary gym teacher. I still remember climbing the ropes in his gym class! Tom was still talked about being our favorite gym teacher among a friend of mine no less than a week ago. … Great memories are still afloat among his students,” wrote Tony Azzara, of Soldotna.
“You did, indeed, for me, encourage a love of arts. I loved my time in ‘Oliver.’ I was Boy 2 and the Red Wheel and you made certain I knew there were no small parts. The arts have brought and continue to bring me joy,” wrote Shannon Milliman, of Portland, Ore.
Amanda Fay, of Clackamas, Ore., fondly recalled playing Glenda the Good Witch alongside Anderson’s Cowardly Lion in the school’s “Wizard of Oz,” and credits Anderson for spurring her interest in sports.
“As I got older Mr. Anderson continued to encourage me with basketball and attended many of my high school games. He was the most kindest, compassionate, loving man and he will be truly missed. I will always remember his kind words and encouragement through my life, even after elementary school. I will always remember and cherish his pep talks before and after my high school games,” she wrote.
Katie Lockwood, of Minneapolis, Minn., had Anderson for her gym teacher since age 5.
“Eventually my dream came true, and in sixth grade I was able to grace the stage with him as he played Daddy Warbucks to my Annie. Tom is a huge part of why I stayed so involved with community theater growing up, and we remained in touch even after I left for college and moved away from Alaska. I carry so many teachings from Tom with me today as I have transitioned from the stages of community theater to the stages of the courtroom now as a lawyer. He was such an inspiration in so many aspects of my life.”
Anderson was a lively and engaging teacher — “Suited to third-graders, for sure,” as fellow teacher Bud Draper put it.
“But he also had strong discipline. A lot of times when somebody is very creative, things get very loosey-goosey. But the kids just really respected him,” said fellow teacher Donna Rea.
Students in the plays with Anderson said they didn’t feel stage fright, even at the heights of self-consciousness that sixth grade can bring. Anderson was just too comfortable to be around.
“I don’t ever remember being nervous. I think all of the kids were very excited about it. That was the highlight of the sixth-grade year,” said Jenny Henry, who played Annie in one of the productions, with Anderson being Warbucks.
Even after his years teaching, his rapport with kids never retired. Rose Ann Keating remembers Anderson subbing as a gym teacher and offering to take her students for an extra period. His big, enthralling voice had fallen victim to his advancing Parkinson’s disease by then, yet he still managed to have students hanging on his every word.
“They could just feel this connection with him,” she said. “When I went to pick them up the kids were all just rapt leaning in listening to him. And I thought, ‘Wow. I have to find the secret to this,’ because not all my kids were great listeners, I’ll tell you. But he had their attention. They all knew he cared for them. I don’t know what it was, but it was mesmerizing to see kids’ reaction to him because it was so unusual.”
It was a two-way street, though, as Anderson’s connection to kids was likewise unusual in its strength and depth. He was a constant figure in the cheering section at high school sporting events, there to support his former students. He’d remember their stats as if reading from a cheat sheet, even when their sports careers extended to college.
When Anderson’s advancing illness meant he could no longer get around on his own, Draper would pick him up and take him to Kaladi Brothers on weekends to hang out and visit with former students as they’d inevitably pass through.
“Tom would talk to them and it would always be this lively conversation about what they had done and where they were headed. He never forgot a kid, ever,” Draper said.
“And the names! He never forgot a name,” said Rosie Reeder. “He’d remember those kids from third grade and now they were 22, 23 years old and he’d come up with their names every time. It blew me away. And not just their name, but them — their history and their personality and what was important to them.”
It’s not really that surprising that kids were enthralled by Anderson, when adults were too. His charisma was as pervasive as his reverberating voice and infectious laugh.
“People were drawn to him, but not because he drew attention to himself at all. He was just that kind of a person. And everything was funny. He couldn’t just tell you anything, he had to make it into a story. He’d make it into this animated thing and he’d be laughing as much as you,” Reeder said.
Anderson’s humor was legendary.
“He told stories with sound effects. There was always some explosion, a big noise that he would make and come out with,” Draper said.
He seemed unable to keep himself from inserting humor into every situation, whether it was appropriate or not. Draper remembers a master’s program in the Lower 48 in which several teachers from the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District participated. One day they were loaded into vans for a tour of Civil War sites. Their somewhat officious driver and guide took very seriously the historic import of the tour sites. That lent an air of tension to the van as the passengers were expected to behave in keeping with the guide’s somberness. Yet she left the wipers on, despite a lack of precipitation, creating an audible squeak as the rubber squeegeed rhythmically over the dry windshield.
It was too much for Anderson.
“Tom started doing these sound effects to go along with the windshield wipers, and laughing hysterically, but kept doing the sounds. Somehow everybody in the van would be laughing hysterically. He was just always fun to be around,” Draper said.
One of the clips played at Saturday’s tribute was of Anderson speaking at SoEl Principal Leonard Olson’s funeral in 2011. Anderson told of a flight the two took in Olson’s plane. About a mile and a half from their destination the prop stopped spinning, an occurrence Anderson related with a characteristic sound effect, somewhere between a “ca-CHUNK” and a “Brrrr.”
“And of course my heart went right down to the center of my gut,” Anderson said. “And (Olson) says, ‘Hm. It’s never done that before.’ And I said, ‘Leonard, what are we going to do?’ (And he said), ‘Well, I’m going to talk to Roger when I get back. I paid a lot of money to get this fixed.’”
They landed safely and were able to get the prop functioning and take off again. They were headed for Kenai, about halfway across Tustumena Lake, which, “Those of you that know Tustumena Lake know it’s a big, nasty hole in the ground,” Anderson said.
“And all of a sudden it just when ‘wrr-RAP,’ and we took about a 100-foot ‘WHOOOM’ — about a 100-foot dive towards the lake, and it was just whipping and snotty. Then Leonard comes out with another one. ‘Hm. Something else.’ I said, ‘Leonard, we either hit a moose or something up here, because we’re not doing too well,’” Anderson said.
They again managed to make their destination and safely land. Upon investigation they discovered they’d lost a spinner off the front of the prop, which flew back and hit the horizontal stabilizer, whacking it hard enough to almost cause the plane’s complete destabilization.
“If we’d a knocked the back end of that off we’d have been not there. We’d have been, hopefully, up with the good Lord. So, Leonard, see you later, buddy,” Anderson concluded.
Even as the progressing Parkinson’s further affected his physical and cognitive abilities, Anderson’s humor shown through.
“The way he handled that, with humor and dignity,” Draper said.
He had his good days and bad. Draper recalled one visit to Anderson in the assisted-living facility where he was staying, when confusion took over.
“And he would patrol the halls as the principal. He would be asking people, ‘Do you have a pass to be out of class?” Draper said.
Or another time, when Gary Lindman, another fellow teacher and friend, was visiting and momentarily lost track of Anderson, only to hear him in the hallway.
“He was saying, ‘People! People, we need to be quiet now.’ He went into teacher mode. He was a teacher at heart even when he wasn’t anymore,” Lindman said.
While in the hospital, Draper was visiting when a little girl was brought by her grandmother. A nurse asked if anyone wanted something to drink.
“The little girl was thinking about it and whispers to her grandma, ‘What should I have?’ ‘Well, they have juices,’ and listed some of them,” Draper said. “Tom motioned her over and said to the little girl, ‘I wouldn’t go with the prune juice.’ He was still funny. His humor followed him all the way to the end.”
Oftentimes, good things aren’t fully realized while they’re happening. Such was the case with the SoEl musicals. They were certainly popular, but it was only with hindsight that it became clear just how meaningful and lasting an impact they had.
“The power (of the musicals) was a reflection of the staff and the lives of students at Soldotna Elementary,” Draper said. “It’s a shame it’s gone.”
And it’s a shame for all those who knew, worked with, acted alongside or were taught by Anderson that he’s gone, and an even bigger shame for those who didn’t get an opportunity to have their lives enriched by his presence in it.
But not a crying shame. Not if Anderson could have anything to say about it.
“It can still hear his laugh. Everything was funny. You just couldn’t help yourself but to laugh along with him,” Reeder said.