The Linney Legacy at ASU
Romulus Linney was more than an esteemed playwright and father. He was a friend, one with local roots and an undeniable appreciation for the Appalachian State University Theatre and Dance Department.
Just ask his longtime friend Susan Cole, department chairwoman from 1975 to 2005.
"I met him in 1988," she said, "when we were doing a production of 'Heathen Valley.'"
It was one of many of his own novels that he dramatized throughout his career.
"I heard from a friend that he had done this and asked permission to do it," Cole said.
Even though the play had not been given non-professional production rights, Linney made an exception for Appalachian State University. After all, he had grown up in Boone, spending his childhood at "the family home," the white house on the hill near the U.S. Post Office on King Street.
Under reputed professor Cratis Williams, Linney studied folklore, an admitted influence on the plays he wrote that celebrated Appalachian culture. Having Linney on board for that first production was more than a professional boon.
"We were very excited because we were the first college to be able to do it," Cole said, "and he came down to the show and talked with the cast and interacted with them and showed us what a lovely person he is."
It was the start of a 22-year friendship. Cole is the person who presented him with an achievement award from the North Carolina Theatre Conference.
In 2001, she led the charge to get Ernest Gaines' "A Lesson Before Dying" on the freshman reading list, so ASU could present a timely production of Linney's theatrical adaptation (and Linney could be the convocation speaker), and, perhaps most notably, she spearheaded the effort to get him to write "Hisself," a play commissioned by ASU to be performed during the centennial in 1999.
Theater professor Joel Williams was an actor in "Hisself" and directed Linney's adaptation of "A Lesson Before Dying" and saw firsthand what Linney meant to the department.
"To have someone like that associated with our program," he said, "certainly whenever you have something like that, it's a benefit to the program and the reputation of the program."
Gaines' story in "A Lesson Before Dying" is one Williams was compelled to tell, as was Linney.
"I think if you could ask Romulus, he would tell you that it wasn't his story," Williams said. "He and Ernest Gaines were good friends and he would say, 'It's Ernest's story.' ... Romulus had said to Ernest at one point ... this really ought to be a play."
And theater gave even more life to what was already a coveted story.
"The novel was widely read," Williams said, "but seeing the play, seeing that story come to life on stage, it's a very powerful piece of production ... I think what Romulus was able to do was capture that story and dramatize it in a way that was faithful to the original work."
For student actors, actors like alumnus Daryl Walker, currently a teacher in South Korea, "Lesson" gave them very real lessons, lessons they continue to carry.
"'A Lesson Before Dying' changed my life in many ways," Walker said. "Because of (Linney) and his wonderful writing and Ernest Gaines' story, I learned a lot about myself and even more about the craft. He will be missed in my heart and in the hearts of others."
And "Lesson" was just one of literally dozens of stories Linney brought to the stage. While only one production made the Broadway stage, his real impact was on Off-Broadway and regional stages. With plays like "Appalachia Sounding," "Mountain Memory" and "True Crimes," he left an Appalachian legacy that won't soon be forgotten.
"I think some of his work brought attention to the people, the characters who make this part of the country a unique place and, certainly, like any artist, his voice is going to be missed," Williams said.
And it's not just about Linney the playwright. Linney the man made his mark at ASU, a place he called home.
"He was modest, unassuming," Cole said, "very kind, very gentle, but with very strong opinions ... If someone tried to do one of his plays and did something weird with it, he was certainly outspoken about it."
In 1995, Linney was issued an honorary degree at ASU. To Cole, he seemed unstoppable. Unstoppable, that is, until he was diagnosed with lung cancer three weeks ago. "He was given six months to live, and, of course, he didn't make it," Cole said.
Linney's final hours were spent with his family beside him. "At his request, they read from one of his plays," she said.
Actress Laura Linney, his daughter, won a Golden Globe Sunday but was not at the ceremony to receive the award. The trophy was for her role in the "Big C," coincidently enough, a show about cancer.
Linney died Jan. 15, but his legacy lives on, in part through the teachers and students he touched at ASU.