Former WLU professor and Hilltop Players Hall of Famer, Stanley Harrison, dies at age 87

By: WLSC Alumni

Remembering Stanley Harrison

July 1934—August 2021
Assistant Professor of Drama
West Liberty State College

The impact that Stanley Harrison made on West Liberty students when he arrived in the fall of 1962 to the time he left in the spring of 1979 could be felt from the Ohio Valley to Broadway and from community theatres to high school drama classes across the country.

Harrison was born in St. Joseph, Mo. in 1934, and after graduating high school there in his hometown, he went off to Allegheny College in Meadville, Pa. At Allegheny, he acted during the school year and the summer as the school hosted The Penn Players, a summer stock company. Harrison was one of the company’s two male ingénues. Following his college graduation, Harrison was accepted at the Yale School of Drama where he studied under some of the best theatre professors in the world.

Equipped with Yale M.F.A., Harrison began acting and teaching at the Pittsburgh Playhouse. In 1962, he came to West Liberty to teach drama—acting, directing, and contemporary drama. During his 17 years as a Hilltopper, he taught, directed, acted, sponsored Chi Nu fraternity, recruited students for the drama department, worked for the Wheeling Symphony, secured work for numerous students at summer stock theatres, and encouraged and supported his former students, the founders of Brooke Hills Playhouse, where he acted for five seasons.

In 1979, Harrison left West Liberty and went to New York City to establish himself as an acting teacher and coach, but many of his West Liberty students kept in touch with him over the years via phone calls and by taking him out to eat whenever they found themselves in New York.

Many of his students continued on in the theatre— teaching theatre classes and directing high school and college plays and musicals, starting a summer stock theatre of our own, going to New York and making a living acting or singing, becoming heads of drama departments and managers of performing arts venues. Those who pursued other fields would never forget their theatre experiences with Harrison. In 2018, Harrison was one of the first three individuals to be inducted into the West Liberty Hilltop Players’ Wall of Fame.

One thing that stands out is that Harrison impacted the lives of his students for the better, and they have never forgotten him and his influence. To that end, we present these memories of our teacher, mentor, and friend, Stanley Harrison.

Shari Murphy Coote, Class of 1969:

In the first semester of my sophomore year, I took Speech 101, a required class for graduation. One day near the end of the semester I was leaving class and Mr. Harrison said, “Murphy, see me in my office!”

I let him go ahead and then followed a few minutes later up the steps that led to his office. “Murphy, did you ever think about being a speech major?,” Professor Harrison said. I was a little shocked and said, “No.” He replied with, “Well, think about it. That’s all.” And I turned around and left. For the rest of the day and over the weekend, I thought about what Harrison had said.
I had been the very worst public speaker in my high school speech class at the beginning of the semester. However, that high school speech class started a process that would influence the rest of my life.

Now, here was my college speech teacher, asking me to consider being a speech major. No one else, except for my mother who insisted that I be a teacher of some sort, had ever counseled me on the direction of my future. Not that Mr. Harrison’s question was all that inspiring, but he had taken the time to ask it.

The following semester I enrolled in two drama classes, and before long, I knew I would be changing my major to drama. By taking a few minutes to talk to me, Harrison changed the direction of my future, and I have loved putting on plays and attending shows ever since.

Faye Argentine, Class of 1972:

Stanley Harrison taught me and so many others to love theatre. Its required dedication, discipline and camaraderie. He embodied the new family we found in the Theatre Department at West Liberty — the new brothers and sisters on that Hilltop. He was our pater familias. Fifty years later, we still care.

Some of my West Liberty brothers and sisters pursued true theatre professions; others did not. I am one who did not, but I am one who absorbed Harrison’s teachings from his play direction class and used it successfully throughout my professional career. Harrison taught me how to create a schedule to produce a play, event — whatever. This process has never failed me in well over 40 years of project and event management.

Harrison taught me to love the theatre, to appreciate it. To this day, I do. I have lived in New York City since 1972 and attended more Broadway, Off-Broadway, and Off-Off-Broadway performances than I can count. I am the audience, and I applaud with love and respect all my brothers and sisters on stage at every performance I attend.

Jane Miller, Class of 1973:

In my junior year, I goofed off. My life that year consisted of theatre and parties. I didn’t study unless it got me on stage. Eventually, my grades were heading toward scholastic probation, so I went “grade begging.”
Harrison was my obvious focus, as he needed me for a major, upcoming production. I had him for two 3-hour classes, contemporary theatre and acting, and I needed an A in one of them. I decided to try to up my grade from the C I had earned to an A in contemporary theatre. Harrison refused me the A in contemporary theatre, saying it was the one class where he was tough. I started out of his office, fighting tears, and muttering, “Thank you.”

“Come here. Read this,” he said, handing me a speech from The Taming of the Shrew. “Read it like she was right here, saying these words,” he said.

I finished the speech, and he sent me home. When my grades came, I had an A in Acting! Harrison’s compassion changed everything for me. From then on, I was on the dean’s list.

Tom Pasinetti, Class of 1973:

When I arrived at West Liberty in the fall of 1969, I was a naive kid from Wellsburg, W. Va., who was there to get an education as a physical education major and to play football. Little did I know that my life would take a U-turn because of one man, and I would dedicate myself to a life in the theatre.

I spent my freshman year as planned–classes and football, but West Liberty required that everyone take Speech 101 in order to graduate, so the first semester of my sophomore year, I took the required class. Harrison was my speech teacher and I am not sure why, but we hit it off right away. We didn’t have much in common.

Following that speech class, Harrison and I became great friends. Before long I was majoring in drama and loving every minute in every class in the department. In truth, he was my teacher, my mentor, my companion and my friend for the next 51 years, and as such, he opened the world for me. We went to Europe together, and he insisted that we see plays and operas and art galleries.

He believed in me more than I ever believed in myself, and he kept pushing me to do things I’d never done, to go places I’d never been and to accept people who were very different from me. He encouraged me to go to graduate school, and his generosity made it possible for me to go.

I’ve spent my life working in theatres, and I wouldn’t trade that for anything. To simply say that Harrison influenced me is an understatement. He changed my life, no, he gave me my life in theatre, and I am eternally grateful.

Judy Porter Hennen, Class of 1973:

Stanley Harrison was a huge, positive force in the young lives of so many West Liberty students, including mine. For so many of us, he became a lifelong friend, and his outsized personality and character quickly won us over. His classes were nearly always a performance, and although he was passionate about his work, he would often have us laughing in class and backstage. However, he was serious about the craft of acting, the importance of creating professional productions and the value of learning theatre history and theatre traditions.

Harrison was caring and always had time to listen to our problems and our triumphs. He was an inspiration as a teacher and more importantly, as a person. He remains an inspiration for me.

It was a privilege to act with Harrison during our years together at Brooke Hills Playhouse. Acting with Harrison during those wonderfully fun summers at Brooke Hills from 1972 through 1977 taught me so much about comedy and stretched my acting skills and confidence to a new level.

When my late husband John and I moved to New York City, I continued to learn from Harrison as I took a few of his acting classes in his studio in New York. I am so glad to have known Harrison and to have called him a beloved friend.
Tom Cervone, Class of 1975:

Note: In the fall of 2018, Harrison was one of the first three inductees for the Hilltop Players Wall of Fame. Tom Cervone, T.C. to his friends, wrote and delivered his introduction, slightly modified here on the occasion of Harrison’s death.
“Be not afraid of greatness. Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and others have greatness thrust upon them.” Malvolio, Twelfth Night, Act II, Scene 5

One of my most vivid memories of Eugene Stanley Harrison, and there are many, is his sharing of Malvolio’s “cross-garter” speech from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night in an acting class very early in my tenure as a student of Harrison’s. After we all wiped our eyes from tears of laughter, I suddenly realized all of us were in the company of greatness. And, believe me, this was just the beginning.

For the next nearly five years, all of us who had the good fortune of keeping company with Harrison, on stage and off, learned how to and how NOT to conduct and comfort ourselves as artists, and perhaps even more importantly, as loving and generous human beings.

For me personally, Harrison’s influence initiated and inspired my 30-plus years as an acting teacher and coach, as well as my career as an arts administrator and executive director. In all candor, it’s rare that I walk into a theatre and not wander WWST, “What would Stanley think?”

Rarely, if ever, do I presume to speak on anyone’s behalf unless given tacit permission to do so, but I think in this instance, I’ve got a free pass:

Every one of us whom Harrison taught, directed, challenged, shaped and loved is thankful for the opportunity we had to know him and to learn from him. We loved him, and we will miss him, but we will continue to carry his legacy with us every day. In death, we celebrate his gifts to us and the beautiful artist and human being he always was.

“And may flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!” Hamlet, Act V, Scene 2

The Trumpet staff sends their deepest sympathies and condolences to the friends, family and loved ones of Professor Stanley Harrison. It is with great honor we remember his legacy to the Hilltop in Volume 101, Issue 1 of The Trumpet.