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Theatre patriarch Zack York dies

March 19, 2008

Dr. Zack L. York, former chair of the Western Michigan University Department of Theatre and a legend in WMU theatre history, died Monday, March 17, in Kalamazoo. He had just celebrated his 95th birthday last week.

York was born on March 13, 1913, in Portland, Mich., and retired from the University in 1978 with emeritus status. Shortly after his retirement, the WMU Board of Trustees named the University's arena theatre in his honor.

In 2003, trustees granted York an honorary doctor of fine arts degree for his many years of service to the theatre program. His long list of awards also includes being named one of three recipients of Kalamazoo's Community Medal of Arts award in 1988. A theatre scholarship at WMU was created in his honor in 2004. It is the department's most prestigious scholarship.

A faculty member from 1940 to 1978, York served in nearly every phase of theatre work and in 1976 was named the first chair of the newly formed Department of Theatre, which joined the four-year-old College of Fine Arts. Founded in 1906, the theatre program operated as part of the Department of Communication Arts and Sciences and the Department of Speech.

York's many contributions were well noted by those who served with him.

Dr. Robert Luscombe, longtime dean of the College of Fine Arts, who retired in 1999, put York in the same company as Dr. Harry Hefner, professor emeritus of art, who served on the Western Michigan University faculty from 1940 to 1977.

"They were both gentlemen of the same cloth compassionate, genteel and dedicated educators in and outside the classroom, who never watched the clock when there was important work to be done," Luscombe said. "It didn't matter if it was a major production or exhibition or a single student, these exemplary gentlemen would focus their talents and tenacity on the task at hand and get it done."

The creation of the Zack L. York Theatre Scholarship demonstrated his immense influence on students, Luscombe said.

"When former students of Zack's--some from the early '40s--donated nearly $100,000 to name his scholarship, that brought home the remarkable influence he had on literally thousands of individuals at very impressionable times in their lives," Luscombe said.

A 1937 graduate of what was then Western Michigan College, York earned both master of arts and doctoral degrees from the University of Wisconsin. He also attended Yale Drama School in 1939-40, after teaching junior high school English in Hastings, Mich., for two years.

In 1940, Laura V. Shaw hired York to join what was then the Department of Speech. In 1942, York left for World War II military service. After the war, he returned to WMU and spent the rest of his teaching career at the University, except for one academic year during which he taught stage design at Michigan State University.

Robert M. Beam, who retired in 2007 after serving 42 years at the University, 21 of those years as vice president of business and finance, said York helped usher in a period of significant growth for WMU.

"Zack lived a long, wonderful and vibrant life," Beam said. "His time at WMU spanned a very good deal of the University's academic and physical development. He reminded me of G.W. Haworth, founder of Haworth Inc. and a 1937 alumnus of Western Michigan University, in that both men lived long enough to see significant changes in their beloved institutions."

A memorial service is to be held at a later date.

Media contact: Mark Schwerin, (269) 387-8400, mark.schwerin@wmich.edu

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