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Remembering Ron Longstreth, EdTA’s longest-serving executive director

Compiled By Jim Palmarini

Shortly after I volunteered to write a remembrance essay about longtime Executive Director Ron Longstreth, who passed away in December 2022, I realized I was not up to the task — at least not by myself. Ron touched many lives during his 31 years of leadership for the organization. So I reached out and asked some of those individuals to reflect on the man whose vision and drive transformed the International Thespian Society into today’s EdTA. The heartfelt comments shared here offer a portrait of a man who was kind, funny, thoughtful, and of course, as human and fallible as the rest of us.

So many rich memories are captured in the remarks that follow that I will keep my own remembrance brief: When my first wife, Gail, passed suddenly at a very young age, Ron’s empathy was one of the touchstones that helped me to rebuild my personal and professional life. I have never forgotten his kindness during that difficult time. Be well, Ron — hope the dessert table is never ending and the orchids always in bloom!

Ron Longstreth dessert
Longstreth loved sharing time (and dessert!) with his EdTA colleagues and friends.

Retirement retrospective

To mark Longstreth’s retirement in 1999, Dramatics Magazine Editor Don Corathers delivered keynote remarks at a dinner held in Longstreth’s honor, as part of the organization’s annual conference held that year in Chicago. Here is his speech, edited for clarity and length.

Almost exactly 20 years ago, I got a call from my good friend Ezra Goldstein. He was editing a theatre magazine in Cincinnati, and he wanted me to come and check it out and see if I might want to work there as his associate editor. I went, and during my visit, I was summoned to the office of the executive director of the Thespian Society. That’s when I met Ron Longstreth for the first time. It is possible I was a bit nervous. I fumbled around and tried to offer Ron a copy of my resume. He brushed it aside and said: “I have complete faith in Ezra’s judgement.”

Now, my first reaction to that — I had known Ezra for a long time, and we’d had some interesting experiences together — was “Whoa, I’m not sure I trust his judgement.” But my second thought, and the one that has stayed with me, was: “What an interesting thing for a boss to say.” That kind of boss thinking was foreign to my experience.

At the time, I didn’t fully comprehend the significance of the fact that Ron and Ezra had just finished hammering out a policy on editorial independence for Dramatics Magazine. In association publishing, editorial independence is a condition much to be desired but rarely achieved. We take it for granted at Dramatics now, but when Ezra proposed it 20 years ago it was a radical idea, and for Ron to agree to it was an act of courage. He reaffirmed that decision in 1986 when he appointed me editor, gracefully concealing the trepidation I know he must have felt.

Ron’s great talent was for drawing creative people to himself. His life’s work was to recruit collaborators and fit them into the global Ron Longstreth network.

I am not the first to note the connection between Ron’s passion for cultivating orchids and his management style. But it’s a lovely metaphor, and I would like to explore it a little more fully. The truth is that Ron has always been a gardener. He has the talent to see the bloom before the plant has even begun to think about putting out a bud. He works the hell out of the soil. He waters assiduously. When things are not working out, he’s not afraid to transplant. He’ll try changing the light. He applies fertilizer with great generosity.
Now, some people might be discouraged to come into their office some morning and find everything three feet deep in cow dung. Those of us who understand Ron know that it means great things are expected of us.

The most important thing I want to say to Ron, from my heart and on behalf of my colleagues, is thank you. Thank you for keeping this place together all these years. Thank you for making it possible for me to work with these crazy, wonderful people. Thank you for making the investment of faith in me and my colleagues that has given us the opportunity to do the work we love. And thank you for teaching me how to order sushi. Bless you, Ron, and Godspeed.

Legacy of love

Ronald Longstreth is the cornerstone of the Educational Theatre Association. He built a dream to make his love for theatre and education into an organization that realizes the importance of theatre as a discipline of life. On Ron’s desk was a reproduction of the sculpture LOVE. Love in every true form governed every aspect of his existence. His respect for the human condition and the relationships he made and loved was his true life and legacy. And I think he saw the face of God in every aspect of his extraordinary being. Good night, Sweet Prince. May flights of angels take thee to thy rest.

Bob Johnson, former board member

Leading with courage and kindness

Ron had a body that was always in pain. He endured many surgeries and therapies, but none of them ever seemed to fully fix his problems. One of many things I admired about Ron was that no matter how much pain he was in, he always carried on and never let those pains stop him from doing what he wanted. And even though he was in pain he was always caring and gentle. He carried on with courage and kindness.

In 1990 Ron had a dinner party, and at that party he asked me what I was up to. I told him I was getting ready to take a trip around the world and when I got back, I would have to look for a full-time job. He asked me if I’d like to come in for an interview with him. So we set up an appointment.

I nervously showed up for the appointment on Central Parkway and Pat Kroeger answered the door. I said I had an appointment with Ron, and she said I’m so sorry, but he’s gone out to lunch. He had forgotten about the appointment!!! We rescheduled the appointment, and I got the job. A job of 30 years that offered me many, many wonderful friends and life experiences I never could have imagined.

— Nancy Brown, former staff member

Ron Longstreth Jo McKeown
Longstreth with Jo McKeown, an EdTA employee for 30-plus years

Achieving a vision

Ron Longstreth was both my friend and my teacher. I often think of when I met him on the portico of the theatre at Ball State University when I took students to the International Thespian Festival in 1980 for the first time. There are many words and phrases that can be used to describe Ron. Among them are wise, kind, and supportive. Then other words like foodie, visionary, mentor, and creative broaden that list.

But to me, two words jump out that truly make him the man I will hold in my heart—friend and teacher. Whether we were interacting as leaders in EdTA, traveling, or sitting over dinner, I could always depend on Ron to be honest, to truly listen, and to ask great questions. He was reluctant to give advice or direction but would guide me to where I both wanted and needed to be. He was never reluctant to tell me when I screwed up, share a good laugh, or give praise when it was earned. Ron did what all good leaders do, he led by example, recognized and honored the work and time of those who stood and worked with him, and made each individual feel important and valued.

Ron had a clear long-range vision for what would become EdTA and had the skills to develop a roadmap to get the organization there. He was also smart enough to know his own weaknesses and to surround himself with people who helped him reach his goals one step at a time. But the most important lesson I learned from Ron was that no matter what title I have, or what position I fill, the most important one I will ever hold is teacher. I will miss him and be grateful to him for the lessons learned for as long as I draw breath.

— Joe Burnsworth, former board member

A special friendship

My reflection is about my theatre teacher and predecessor and her relationship with Ron. Ruth Liveakos was my theatre teacher and my inspiration to follow in her footsteps. She and Ron had a special relationship. I remember us pulling up in front of the Lied Auditorium for the Thespian Festival. Before we could get parked, Ron was out the door and waiting for Ruth to get off the bus or out of the car. She would comment, “There is my precious Ron.” Even after she retired, she would come to Festival, and as long as he was there, he greeted her. I can still see this when I remember her and Ron. He loved her, and she loved him. He was a special man.

— Debby Gibbs, former board member

Letter from the editor

I worked with Ron for 10 years, as editor of Dramatics Magazine from 1975-1985. Through much of that time, I regarded my editorship as audacious, rebellious, rule-breaking — daring Ron and the board to rein me in, my letter of at-the-barricades-resignation already composed in my head. In turn, Ron regarded me with affectionate bemusement. He was supportive even when issues of Dramatics overshot the mark or raised eyebrows, and he defended me against occasional barbs from the board.

I think Ron saw a more sophisticated Dramatics as crucial to his gentle but constant nudging of a rather sleepy and tradition-bound society toward greater professionalism and excitement. It certainly helped that the affection was reciprocal. Remarkably, the only reprimand I recall ever receiving from Ron the 10 years he was my boss was for not using all my vacation time.

— Ezra Goldstein, former staff member

Dear memories

Ron Longstreth and Earl Blank
Longstreth at the Thespian Festival with ITS founder Earl Blank and Blank’s wife

The International Thespian Society was approaching its 60th anniversary when I joined the staff of Dramatics Magazine. Ron Longstreth was at the start of his third decade leading ITS, and to me, he was the Dean of Everything Thespian, the leader of a merry band of theatre lovers devoted to serving “theatre kids” by shaping and elevating theatre education.

Ron always had this constant, understated pride in everything the organization had accomplished in three decades under his leadership, in each of us, and in all the plans and dreams he and we had for the future.

I remember Ron as an old soul with a quick smile and as an attentive listener who always began his side of a conversation (with me, anyway) with “My dear…” Ron, my dear, what a star turn you have had in all our lives!

— Kim Graham, former staff member

Warm welcome

He led the Educational Theatre Association with wisdom and kindness and a vision! I met Ron the first time I attended the International Thespian Festival in 1984. He was standing on the front porch of Emens Auditorium greeting people. I had just driven eight hours with a group of high school Thespians. He welcomed me with a hug and then a cup of cold water. I knew immediately that I had made a good choice to bring my students to that event. This initial experience was so positive that I attended the festival for thirty consecutive years. He was the official welcomer for most of those years and he never forgot my name.

— Lana Hagan, former board member

Serving students and teachers

Ron was instrumental in developing Thespians during the time period that I sponsored a troupe, was California chapter director, and volunteered with Peter Sargent, Pam Ware, and Madelon Horvath as regional directors as we all experimented with the alphabet soup of redefining the organization as ETA, TEA, etc. I appreciated Ron’s ability to listen without judgment, weighing the options before making a decision that would best serve theatre students and educators. He always seemed to understand what needed to be done to best benefit the association and its members.

— Gai Laing Jones, former board member

Ohio connections

The Thespian Society was always important to Ron. When I became Ohio Thespians State Director in 1996, I attended a training session in Cincinnati in the building on Central Parkway. Also attending was the Arkansas director, and Gail Burns, a new regional director. Ron Longstreth also added to the discussions with historical tidbits when we all went to dinner. Being an Ohioan, he often attended the Ohio Conference if it was near Cincinnati. He enjoyed watching students perform. He was inducted into the Ohio Chapter’s Hall of Fame and was always available for advice. He attended Festival several times after retiring which gave us the chance to catch up with one another.

— Gloria McIntyre, former board member

Putting people first

Ron’s leadership created the International Thespian Society and the Educational Theatre Association as we know them today, the programs and events we have started with his vision. But Ron was more than that; he was a wonderful human being. I can’t think of Ron and not remember his sense of humor and quick laugh. He loved to joke and poke gentle humor with friends.

Ron had a notoriously bad sense of direction. He was taking me to dinner one evening (he also really loved good food). After driving for about 15 minutes, I noticed a landmark in Cincinnati and said I thought we were going to a restaurant north of the city. We were heading south and nearing the Ohio River and the Kentucky border!

Ron Longstreth and Allen Black
Longstreth with his husband, Allen Black

His interests extended beyond theatre. He loved orchids and had a special room built in his home in Kentucky just for his extensive collection of the beautiful flowers. If you visited Ron and Allen in December, you would be treated to his huge Christmas village display. The living room in their home in Cincinnati was nearly filled with the village, allowing just enough space to walk through the room. When they moved to Kentucky, the large basement room gave Ron space to expand the village even more, and each year a new design brightened their home and the holidays. You honestly had to see it to believe it.

More than anything else, Ron truly loved people. From his neighbors to his line-dancing friends, to the orchid-growing community, to the nationwide theatre family, Ron enjoyed people. Nearly every personal letter or message Ron sent was signed, “Love, Ron.”

Ron will be missed by those of us who knew him. We owe him so much. All students and educators, both society and association members and non-members, enjoy the fruits of his leadership and passion.

— Michael Peitz, former executive director and board member

Joyful memories

One of my greatest memories of Ron was visiting his home and seeing his Christmas collection. It was quite extensive, and I will never forget the joy he expressed when sharing how he found each piece. I also remember how welcoming and generous he was when he wined and dined the EdTA board at his favorite Cincinnati restaurants. He always made a point of making sure everyone was happy, and his energy was contagious. He truly will be missed.

— Mary Schuttler, board member

Mentor and friend

Ron was a wonderful mentor and friend to me. He had walked in my shoes for many years and even though the organization was in a different phase of development, many of the challenges were similar. Ron was always there to offer support, perspective, and a smile.

My favorite memories of Ron:

  • Our regular lunches, always at Mitchell’s Fish Market, his favorite
  • The day he toured me around Cincinnati to see the first two offices of EdTA. One of them was only one room where four staff members worked! It reminded me how far we had come.
  • The last time I saw him in person, where he joyfully rode his scooter around University of Nebraska Lincoln to attend the International Thespian Festival for the last time.
  • It was incredibly special when we both got married (not to each other) on April 25, 2015, the same day in Cincinnati!

When I called Ron to say I was moving on from EdTA, I could hear the emotion in his voice. He understood my journey like no one else.

— Julie Cohen Theobald, former executive director

Visionary leader

Maya Angelou once said, “If you’re going to live, leave a legacy. Make a mark on the world that can’t be erased.” This sentiment exemplifies the work and impact of Ron Longstreth not only on the Educational Theatre Association but on the field of educational theatre at large.

Every day, EdTA staff and all our members honor Ron’s memory by being watchful and active stewards of his many visions. The International Thespian Festival is just one indelible mark that endures, and the joy of students gathering to celebrate theater will forever be a nod to Ron’s vision.

Let us remember Ron fondly, and continue to dedicate ourselves to theater and education as Ron demonstrated for us through his life and legacy.

—Dr. Jennifer Katona, current executive director

Please help honor Longstreth’s legacy by donating to the scholarship honoring him. The Ronald L. Longstreth Grant enables Thespians who are not U.S. citizens and reside abroad to attend he International Thespian Festival. Eligible students may be part of a Thespian troupe abroad or an exchange student within a U.S.-based troupe.

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