Beloved theater professor, mentor retires

Director of Theater Jim Cermak heard news in April 2006 of his wife Helen’s cancer coming back. Helen was a part of the theater department at Concordia for almost 30 years.

“There is one thing that’s never kept us from doing things that we know we have to do: hard times; everybody has them,” Jim said. “What Helen decided was that she was going to try to return to her normal life. You can’t just lie down and give up, and she had work to do yet. We’ll return our lives to as normal as we can. That’s all you get.”

Jim met Helen in college in Springfield, Mo., where each of them was a part of the theater department.

“We worked together, but we didn’t date during college,” Jim said. “After she spent two years teaching, and she was a successful high school teacher, and I spent two years in the Navy, we gravitated back to Missouri.”

That is when Jim and Helen met up once again and began dating. Helen then moved to Kansas City for graduate school, and Jim followed her; they spent those two years together.

“At the end of the first year, we had four days off and we decided that we should get married,” Jim said. “We were using the idea that we were life partners long before it became popular, and now we’ve been married for 39 years. We’re very proud.”

Although Jim admitted that it has been very difficult, they continued to work very closely together, ending up here at Concordia.

“Many people believe that what we have accomplished to work together for 37 years onto itself would’ve been a classic example of making a life partnership work,” Jim said, “both in our callings and in our personal and family lives. We’re real lucky.”

Cindy Carver credits her relationship with Helen to her position as chair of the Speech Communication and Theatre Art department for twelve years.

“Most of that time involved working closely with Helen,” Carver said. “Otherwise I might not have gotten as close with her.”

One day, Carver said Helen came to her office and was really interested in starting the Women in Theater course.

“She felt passionately about getting that course into the curriculum,” Carver said. “I saw the time and effort and development that went into it, so that was a favorite part of my work. She used it to provide an additional opportunity to be a mentor. It was a wonderful opportunity for some of our students, especially those who were thinking about going on to theater.”

One thing which stands out to students when they think of Helen and Jim is how student-oriented they are both in classes and in productions, especially for women.

“Helen has taken the world of women and made it possible for literally hundreds of women at Concordia to become who they are over these 25 years,” Jim said. “Her mission was to make sure that young women at Concordia understood that their opportunities and potential talents were recognized and realized.”

Speech Communication and Theater Art faculty member Cindy Larson-Casselton has developed a close relationship with Helen over the past twelve years, since Larson-Casselton became the chair of the department.

“First and foremost, Helen is my friend, my colleague, and has continued to be a mentor to me,” Larson-Casselton said. “I was a student of Helen’s and she supervised my Senior Acting recital. That process was an amazing one, and one I still value to this day.”

Ruth Christianson ‘09 first met Helen in her Oral Interpretation class.

“It was an incredible class, like nothing I ever studied, but she made it so relevant and pertinent and interesting and creative and I loved it,” Christianson said.

Christianson then took the Women in Theater class, which she deemed as a really important class.

“It was all about different women in theater that aren’t usually recognized or studied,” Christianson said. “[Helen] developed the class, and she was revolutionary in that way.”

Monica Jones ’10 also took the Women in Theater class and really enjoyed it.
“I really liked some of the discussions in the class because it isn’t like any class I’ve ever taken before,” Jones said. “It was a discussion-based class, and she would tell really funny stories sometimes and she was fun to be with.”

Jones was in Helen’s production of “Quilters,” which was the only production she had been in with Helen as a director. The play had an all-female cast and it took place in a pioneer setting, requiring a lot of research.

“You could tell Helen really liked all that research,” Jones said. “We would have one-on-one meetings about certain characters. I’ve never been in a show where a director has set aside so much time for one-on-one sessions.”

Jones feels unsure about the future of the drama department, due to the lack of female representation on the teaching staff.

“For me it was one of those things where Helen wasn’t my adviser but I knew I could go to her and she’s a woman, she would understand things more than the male faculty,” she said. “The theater life on campus is primarily female and we now have an entirely male faculty.”

Jessie Bystrom ’09 first met Helen in her Beginning Acting class her freshman year. By the end of Bystrom’s sophomore year, she declared herself a theatre major, and specifically requested Helen as her advisor.

“She was able to teach myself and my classmates in a different way that catered to each of our styles,” Bystrom wrote in a personal journal. “It was obvious that Helen wasn’t here because it was her job – she was here because it was her passion.”

Second semester of her junior year, Bystrom was the stage manager for Helen’s final show at Concordia, “Quilters.”

“As Helen’s cancer continued to worsen through the run of the show, I was always there,” Bystrom said. “I’ll never forget the card she gave me on opening night. It read, ‘It’s our project. I’ll always believe that. Thank you for the great job on this show and all the many little things you have done for me. Love, Helen.’”

After “Quilters” ended, Helen told Bystrom that she would be able to direct a show her senior year as her thesis. Shortly after that news, Bystrom and other students in the theater department were called into a company meeting by Jim, who delivered some bad news.

“Helen’s cancer had returned in full force, and doctors thought it best that she take a year off,” Bystrom said. “I spoke with Helen right after Jim had delivered us this information, and together, we sat and cried.”

When Helen broke the news to Larson-Casselton about the cancer, she came into Larson-Casselton’s office and sat down.

“My husband passed away of cancer a year ago, and he was a professor here for 22 years,” Larson-Casselton said. “She wanted me to know most certainly face to face, so we sat down together and she shared with me what she was facing. Someone who’s so vibrant and has so much to offer was going to have new challenges to face. I wanted to be walking the journey with her.”

Jim said he and Helen were blessed that she was able to return to a normal life as much as possible. From 2006-2007, she continued to teach and direct, but then she had two more bouts. Jim and Helen’s daughter AJ Cermak is having a tough time seeing her mother retiring. Despite this, she still takes the time to reflect on the positive experiences Helen is known for.

“Helen has created a very special legacy with her students,” AJ said. “She is known for her ‘Helen Hugs,’ ‘Coke Dates,’ and long, deep conversations about lives – those lived both onstage and off.”

AJ believes Helen’s retirement will have a huge impact on the theater department.

“She is not only one of the best directors to ever work in this community, but also one of the best directors I have ever seen in this country,” AJ said. “There should be a great sense of loss felt that the Concordia theatre department has lost (due to her forced retirement) one of their most inspiring and influential mentors as well as the only female member of the theatre faculty.”

Christianson had a particularly tough time dealing with Helen’s absence this past year in the theater department.

“She was supposed to direct “The Heidi Chronicles,” so it was really hard she when she had to leave,” she said. “No one can take her place. No one.”

Helen is known for her student-oriented approach to teaching and directing, and Carver definitely took notice of that.

“You talk about doctors without borders, and she was definitely a teacher without borders,” Carver said.

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