Sarah Larson, Professor of English, Previous Chair of English Department, Dunwoody

 

A Blithe Spirit—Peggy Sherry Meets Edward Albee

 

A vibrant, lithe and lovely woman walked into my Humanities office in the “D” building at the Dunwoody Campus, and the room seemed to radiate sweetness and light. Peggy wanted to teach part-time at the college level after instructing Dunwoody High School students through the years. She did not look as if retirement would suit her—“I cannot imagine not teaching,” she volunteered. “It makes life worth living.” I made the obligatory phone calls to references, and each voice brightened with superlatives—“she is one of a kind;” “never have met her equal,” “inspiring,” “exciting.” I quickly realized that we were lucky that she had come our way.

 

“I would prefer a research course if you have one available,” she said. “I love the plays, and want to teach your English 102 course. I have seen the text,” she added. I soon received her syllabus—a week by week comparison of the old masters and contemporary playwrights. “I want students to know that the theatre is relevant to their lives,” she commented as she gave me a file of clippings and sources. Of course it was not long before I had students call and ask if she also taught sophomore literature as they were eager to follow her to the next level.

 

Then one day she popped her head in my door and told me she was working on a summer fellowship to study Broadway playwrights. “Edward Albee is going to be a guest lecturer, and David Mamet , Harold Pinter, and Tom Stoppard, too,” she beamed. She hoped that I would write a letter of recommendation, and I assured her that I could say good things.

 

That New York summer was a golden one for Peggy. She took courses, scheduled interviews, and even went dancing with the Papps after Shakespeare in the Park. Then early one July morning, I got a phone call. “I think I can get Edward Albee to speak at our campus.” I didn’t want to dampen her enthusiasm so I said something like” I will look into the funding” which I knew was not there to sponsor a campus visit for a noted

playwright.

 

 Her smile was even brighter and her step a little lighter after that summer course, and her fashionable dress became even classier. Working on the project together introduced me to the White World of Peggy’s Dunwoody home. The decor was stark white inside and out with a lighted flocked pine tree as a year round focal point in her living room. “I love Christmas with the children and grandchildren gathering, and I have this great contact that provides a newly decorated Christmas tree every year. It reminds me that good things can happen.”

 

This was not a woman that anyone would want to disappoint so I had been thinking about how it could become a reality that Edward Albee would interact with our students with the $500 Humanities Faculty Development Fund we had to work with. I ventured a possible solution: “While you were gone last summer, I was introduced to a new medium at the DeKalb Tech Campus called GSAMS. Courses are taught over this network, and Clarkston Campus is getting the technology this fall, and soon it will be a college–wide network.” I studied her reaction to the idea of a teleconference instead of the personal appearance she had in mind. 

 

“I received a note from Albee this week telling me that he was looking forward to meeting our faculty and students. He is such a genuinely thoughtful and caring man that I am sure that he would be open to whatever we could work out,” she assured me. “Could you show me what you have in mind so that I can call him and tell him all about the idea?”

 

We went over to DeKalb Technical College and looked at the facility. She loved the idea that the camera was” speech activated” so whoever was speaking would get the spotlight. “Could you connect with any city in the United States? “ she asked the facilitator who kindly tuned us into a classroom demonstration. Her eyes were bright with wonder when he explained the world-wide possibilities that were unfolding. “ I will give him a call tonight,” she responded. As were returning to Dunwoody, I could see her turning over in her mind exactly how she would sell Albee on the new venue.

 

The next day she made an appointment to see me after her classes. “He says that he will try it,” she exuded. “He was charming as usual and said that he had always been a Luddite, but he thought that technology could not be all bad if he could connect with students and faculty and not even leave New York. I told him I would arrange for one of the summer seminar professors to accompany him and to briefly introduce him.” Peggy went on non-stop. “What a great day! I even told him that we could only offer him a honorarium of $500 and that we would like to tape it, and he did not hesitate to tell me to set a date and get back to him so that he could plan ahead. Now how about a celebration lunch at Café Intermezzo?”

 

Somehow I knew that this conference was just the beginning of a great literary adventure.  Peggy decided to teach Albee’s Three Tall Women, which the students purchased willingly with the idea that they would all read and discuss the play. All would decide on which aspect of the work they would like to research in-depth and what questions they could ask Albee that would translate into primary sources to make them the most authoritative literary critics to date. Peggy sent the questions to Albee in advance with each student’s name attached and even the tentative thesis of his English 102 research paper. Albee gave Peggy a call: “Are you sure these students are really Freshman writers? If so, you have a special college at DeKalb.”  That was all she needed to go full speed and set the date for a November conference with the Pulitzer Prize playwright. “I want to seize the momentum,” she said gleefully.

 

Peggy and I found out that Clarkston had a new GSAMS room, and it was there that we carried in more tables and chairs to accommodate two 102 classes from Dunwoody and a Drama class from Clarkston. We rimmed the room with chairs to make sure faculty members could get access to the literary happening. We left tired but excited. “How about a chocolate fudge sundae to celebrate? “ Peggy made every occasion a moveable feast.

 

The video-conference connected a New York Kinko’s close to Albee’s apartment to DeKalb College, Central Campus. Our beloved Dot Stipe made each student a calligraphic place card so Albee could see the students’ names, and they could carry away a permanent souvenir. The taping helped with their later recording of the precious words offered by the author, who was humble, funny, and charming. The research papers were filled with original citations, making them publishable in The Polishing Cloth, our freshman writing magazine. The college photographer took a picture of the event, and I obtained the original and framed it in white pearl and sent it to Peggy for Christmas to place under her newly lighted, magnificent flocked tree. Her mother, an eighty- year-old Julliard graduate, played a concert of Christmas and classical music at the Humanites Holiday party. We were getting to know the remarkable family very well.

 

Peggy could not wait to plan the next year’s conference and made extensive notes with a step by step documentation of the process. I noticed that she asked for a teaching schedule that allowed her to have weekends off during Winter Quarter.” I am having a few health problems; I am going to see my daughter who is a research physician with the National Institute of Health. If I have Tuesday and Thursday classes, I can get back from Washington in time to meet them. I did not hear from her for a while and called her home; her voice seemed animated but a bit shaky “It’s a bit of bad luck. I have been diagnosed with ovarian cancer, but I am going to fight it. I will need to enter a research study at NIH Spring Quarter. Be sure to remember me for the fall. We have to get started early on our next playwright’s video-conference.” She sent me her notes.

 

The treatments left Peggy too weak to teach fall quarter. I went on with the plans, keeping her face before me. We were having a Latin Deli symposium in the spring and Ariel Dorfman, who had written Death and the Maiden, earning him the Pulitzer and the Tony, seemed to be the logical choice. Our video-conference with Duke University where Dorfman was and is still teaching in International Studies provided another exciting hour, but this time all the campuses had teleconference rooms. It became a college-wide project, more complicated but even more rewarding.

 

It was that summer that Peggy decided to rent a villa on the outskirts of Florence so the family could be all together to talk and eat and take day trips to see great works of art and simply to bask in the Italian sun. She exuded pure joy as she talked about their group cooking efforts and the abundance of fruits and vegetables all around them. She looked tanned and healthy. “ I cannot believe I do not have long to live,” she confided

 

Everyone in our department and all the librarians kept in touch with Peggy throughout the year. She went back to Washington for an extended stay with her daughter. She came back home and decided to teach an Evening at Emory theatre course that would be less stressful but would include  studying  plays and their authors, going to local theatre productions, and holding sessions with the director and actors after the show.  Soon that activity also had to be limited. But then another phone call came with the good news that she was in remission and that her daughter who lived in town had arranged for her to see her former husband whom she had always loved. “You know how young people are,” she said.” We did not have the patience to work things out. But now we have found each other again, and we are going to be married in San Francisco. You should see what I have picked out to wear for my wedding and honeymoon. It is a family affair, but I will send you some pictures.”

 

Six months later, her daughter called me and told me the cancer was active again, but that Peggy wanted to teach on the weekends, and frankly she did not think she should. I told her I would arrange for a substitute if she did not have the stamina, but that the students needed Peggy as much as she needed them. But in the middle of the fall quarter as she was preparing the students to study Alfred Uhry’s Last Night of Ballyhoo, she apologetically asked me to get a permanent replacement. “I want a chance to teach this play and get the students ready for our teleconference with Uhry.  If I start feeling better, maybe you could arrange for me to be a guest lecturer next quarter.” I assured her that I would and called up Jeff Portnoy about her teaching his honor students for a session and also told him that Peggy said she would provide copies of the play.

 

We decided to make that guest lecturing cameo a special occasion. The students studied the play, and Peggy came into the classroom with a morphine pump strapped to her waist. I asked the Media Department to tape the session. After the hour and one half meeting which ended in a question/answer format, I presented Peggy with a Swavorski rose that the Humanities Department and the librarians had funded. We sent the tape to Alfred Uhry, and he was so touched that he appeared in person for the $500 honorarium on the pretext that he was planning to come to Atlanta and help his mother move. “What a woman that Peggy Sherry is!” he exclaimed.

 

I never saw Peggy again, but her family let me know that it was a lovely spring day when the breeze was blowing through her white sheer bedroom curtains that she summoned them all to her bedside.  As she had instructed, her beloved husband had provided glasses of champagne, and they circled her bed and raised their glasses in a toast to a gallant woman who had shown them how to live, and they saw a faint smile on her face before she closed her eyes.

 

Now before every video-conference, and we have had nine of them, I think about Peggy and what it would have meant to her to see Alfred Uhry and Margaret Edson in person and connect with NYU to talk with Marsha Norman and Horton Foote and with  UCLA to be with Beth Henley. I feel her spirit all around me. As I drive past her home and see the tiny white lights burning, I know that she was someone who knew how to live and how to die.