Lewis University honors Keith White for life dedicated to theater, education

White, on average, oversaw five ‘high quality’ productions a year

Retired theater director Keith White poses for a photo outside his home in Joliet. Keith was recently awarded the first-ever Dean’s Lifetime Achievement Award for Excellence presented by Lewis University.

A former professor and theater director at Lewis University received the Romeoville university’s first Dean’s Lifetime Award for Excellence.

Keith White of Joliet, who retired from Lewis University in May 2020, received the award on March 22. White said he was “really touched” at the honor, especially since he is so proud of his years with Lewis University.

“Because of COVID, they didn’t have the faculty retirement dinner and the speeches; nothing was said or done,” White said. “I got the gold watch through the mail. But there was no ‘good-bye.”

Mark Swain, interim dean of The College of Humanities, Fine Arts and Communications, said a committee of 13 selected White, who embraced the mission of Lewis University and cared deeply about the students and the theater program.

“The students really want to be there, which is half the battle. And they know who they are a little bit more than high school kids. As human beings, they know who they are. They know what they want. Things aren’t as rigid with classes and they’re easier to talk to as people.”

—  Keith White of Joliet, professor emeritus and former chairperson of theatre at Lewis University in Romeoville

“He kept everything running smoothly and injected the kind of energy you need into a theater department to keep everybody on their toes,” Swain said. White, on average, oversaw five “high quality” productions a year.

“One of the interesting things about the theater program is that you don’t have to be a theater major to audition for a production,” Swain said. “So he had to juggle nontheater majors – maybe aviation majors – during their first time in a play. Because that’s challenging, we were really just honoring his commitment to the program and to Lewis University.”

Keith White of Joliet, professor emeritus and former chairperson of theatre at Lewis University in Romeoville, received the university’s first Dean’s Lifetime Award for Excellence on March 22.

Yet White originally wanted to teach at the high school level. White said his eighth grade class at the former St. Mary Magdalene Catholic Grade School in Joliet took a field trip to see “Finian’s Rainbow,” a production so exciting, that White said he made up his mind to teach rather than be a Lutheran minister.

The ‘magical’ reason

White said he became involved in theater and swing choir as a student at the former Joliet East High School and loved learning from Arlyne Nuti, a vocal teacher at Joliet Township High School District 204.

Nuti was known for culminating each school year with the production of “full-blown Broadway musicals of near professional nature,” according to her 2018 obituary.

By his junior year, White was attending “magical” productions at Lewis University’s former Tangerine Tent on Route 53, he said. The Tangerine Tent was a community theater program that ran for approximately four years, White said.

The summer before White’s freshman year at Lewis, he played Motel in “Fiddler on the Roof,” he said. The director was Chet Kondratowicz, former chair of Lewis University’s theater department, who became White’s mentor and friend.

White said it was easy to respect and trust Kondratowicz.

“He was an excellent teacher and he treated the students well,” he said.

Barbara Eberhard of Joliet, alumna of Lewis University and White’s friend, said she created and glued all the facial hair for the men in “Fiddler on the Roof” and glued it on the actors. She said the tent was very hot and White was “singing his heart” out when his beard failed.

“The beard slowly let loose from his cheek and slid down until it was just dangling from his face,” Eberhard said during her speech at White’s award ceremony. “But he kept on singing … when he came off stage, I thought for sure he was going to be mad, but easy-going Keith thought it was funny.”

White said he was a student when Lewis University constructed its Philip Lynch Theatre in the university’s former hangar after the aviation department moved into a new building.

Retired theater director Keith White's love for theater is evident by the framed play posters hangin on his wall.

He was still a student when he studied ballet under Claudette Soltis, the movement instructor and choreographer for Lewis’ theater department at the time, as well as the director of the Joliet Ballet Society – and not just because he enjoyed movement and dance.

“She snapped me up because at her studio she was teaching all of the girls. But she needed male partners for them to do some partnering work,” White said.

He said he enjoyed the art form, the dance and the “zen-like” aspects of the focus. “I was never in better shape than when I was doing ballet,” White said.

From performer to professor

White’s first job after graduation was working with the Indianapolis Ballet during the fall of 1977. White said the people in the company were wonderful, but he missed theater.

So White returned to Joliet and became a permanent substitute teacher at Washington Junior High for the spring semester.

Then for two years, White worked as an Equity actor at the Candlelight Dinner Playhouse in Chicago. That’s when White realized he wanted to teach, even though he was “making good money,” he said.

“Your schedule is opposite of everyone else’s in the world,” White said. “You work evenings, and you do two shows on Saturday and two shows on Sunday. I never saw anybody except the people I was performing with, who were great. It was a wonderful time. But performing wasn’t exactly for me, I liked being around the family. I liked my friends.”

So when Lewis University created its theater manager position, White applied and landed the job. White happily directed productions and taught dance, makeup and movement classes for eight years, he said.

But since he wanted a full-time faculty position, White left to earn his master of fine arts in acting from Northern Illinois University. White then returned to Lewis as its theater manager for three more years, became a full-time faculty member in 1994 and discovered Lewis college students made terrific theater students.

“The students really want to be there, which is half the battle,” White said. “And they know who they are a little bit more than high school kids. As human beings, they know who they are. They know what they want. Things aren’t as rigid with classes and they’re easier to talk to as people.”

Over the years, White taught acting, directing, musical theater performance and text analysis. White has since directed more than 30 productions at the Philip Lynch Theatre, founded the Heritage Theatre Company (Lewis’ alumni troupe) and performed lead roles in several productions at Lewis, the Rialto Square Theatre and NIU, according to White’s biography on the Lewis University website.

Retired theater director Keith White holds his Dean’s Lifetime Achievement Award for Excellence the first-ever presented by Lewis University on Thursday, April 11, in Joliet.

In 2004, Lewis University awarded White the De La Salle Medallion for Exemplary Volunteer Service in the faculty category.

When White retired, the Philip Lynch Theatre lauded White’s acting achievements on its YouTube page.

White advised theater professors to “keep your passion” and “keep your joy of theater” – despite the struggles – and embrace technology as it has transformed lighting and sound in wonderful ways, he said.

To students, White said don’t rely on natural talent.

“You need a certain amount of natural talent,” White said. “But it needs to be finessed out, trained in order to make it better. It just doesn’t come naturally.”