Tributes flow at news of Don Rathgeb’s passing

November 14, 2018
Mark Tarnacki
Staff Writer
Rathgebs and Peter

The header photo shows Donald Rathgeb with Saint Michael’s theater students in the 1950s. The color photo above shows Peter Harrigan toward the right between the Rathgebs with longtime theater designer Jim Peterson at left at a party in about 1992.

When Donald Rathgeb retired in 1997 after 35 years of teaching drama, directing plays and shaping a prominent summer Playhouse on campus, his Fine Arts colleague Paul LeClair told a reporter that Rathgeb represented “the beginning, flowering and reality of theater here at Saint Michael’s College.”

Donald Andrew Rathgeb, Sr., 87, of Richmond, VT (formally of Essex Junction, VT and Rye, NY) died peacefully, on Sunday, November 11, 2018 surrounded by his loving family after a long, wonderful life, according to his obituary in Wednesday’s Burlington Free Press.

Even well into this past year, the distinguished white-bearded Rathgeb was a frequent visitor to campus in retirement, enjoying the company of former colleagues and students at reunions or for emeritus luncheons, or to see theater productions.

A Saint Michael’s faculty member for 35 years, Rathgeb also spent over 30 summers in the professional Saint Michael’s Playhouse as producer, director, actor, stage manager and scene designer. He started working at Saint Michael’s Playhouse as a set designer in 1955, chaired the Fine Arts Department for 21 years, produced nearly 60 student productions, and was involved with nearly 200 professional summer shows. He, with his late wife Joanne Rathgeb, were instrumental in the development of the Fine Arts Department at Saint Michael’s College.

He and Joanne were selected in 1981 and 1982 for top honors and performance at the Kennedy Center in Washington for the American College Theatre Festival, and in 1987, the two received the American College Theatre Festival Meritorious Achievement Award from the New England region. In 1975, the Rathgebs guided the 1975 construction of the McCarthy Arts Center on the Saint Michael’s campus.

Peter Harrigan ’83, a Rathgeb protégé who now is a professor and director of student productions in the College’s Theater Department, said, “I am so honored to have been able to learn from Don Rathgeb as a student, as a colleague, and as a friend. It was deeply touching to be able to spend some time with Don and his family at the hospital on Sunday. It was a typical Rathgeb gathering in so many respects, with lots of love, laughter, food, and overlapping conversations and stories. His children and grandchildren took amazing care of him. I hope we all can leave this world feeling that loved.”

Harrigan said that Rathgeb and his wife Joanne “were already icons on the Saint Michael’s Campus when the rest of the world discovered them through the plays they brought to the Kennedy Center as part of the American College Theatre Festival, and then through her activism for Breast Cancer, which also reached a national stage. Don supported her every step of the way.

Rathgeb with Hartke

Donald Rathgeb with Fr. Gilbert Hartke, who was in charge of the Saint Michael’s Playhouse until the Rathgebs took over.

“He was an amazing director, and gave incredibly detailed blocking to his actors, at the first rehearsal, with no written notes. He just described what he saw in his head and gave us the structure and confidence to make it come to life. Although he rarely appeared on stage in the years I knew him, he did perform every December at the Fine Arts Department Christmas party, delighting students with readings from “Winnie the Pooh” complete with distinct and funny character voices.”

More recently, Harrigan said, Rathgeb had limited mobility, hearing and vision, “but became a social media star, reconnecting with generations of former students and colleagues on Facebook, and sharing wonderful stories in a witty but always self-effacing way. He always found ways to entertain and teach.”

Another Rathgeb protégé who carries forth his mentor’s work at Saint Michael’s is Chuck Tobin ’80, producing artistic director of the Saint Michael’s Playhouse, who said, “Don Rathgeb was not only my teacher and mentor, but in time became an employer, colleague, and friend. In Don and Joanne’s work as theater faculty of the Saint Michael’s Fine Arts Department and producers of Saint Michael’s Playhouse, their legacy is that not only were they amazing educators and theater professionals, they were mentors who inspired, touched, and enriched the lives of generations of theater artists.

“My gratitude for what they have given me is immense,” Tobin said. “Their love of family, love of work, love of the arts, and love of good times made a profound and indelible impression on me as a college student and I consider them two of the most influential people of my life.”

According to his obituary Donald Rathgeb was born on July 7, 1931 in Port Chester, NY the son of Vincent and Clara (Gallagher) Rathgeb. He graduated from Iona Prep, NYC, received an undergraduate degree from the University of Notre Dame South Bend, Indiana and received a Master of Fine Arts degree from Catholic University, Washington DC.

He had a short stint in the US Army in the medical corp. After receiving his MFA, he toured throughout the United States, Germany and Greenland with the National Players, was former scene designer at Saint Mary’s College South Bend, Indiana and was associated with the Olney Theater in Maryland.

with students circa 1980

In the back row from left (from IDs made by Facebook contributors), Laura Rathgeb, Diane Wheeler, Chuck Tobin and Sarah Carlton, Kathy Doherty and Paul Edwards.

During his teaching tenure at Saint Michael’s, the student Main Stage productions received seven invitations to the New England Regionals of the American College Theater Festival. Two of the Regional Selections were invited to the National Festival at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC. Both he and his wife Joanne were awarded the Kennedy Center Medallion by the ACTF Regional Festival for meritorious achievement in New England theater. Both were inducted as Fellows into the Vermont Academy of Arts and Sciences. He retired from both the theater and teaching in 1997. He was fond of food, family, fun, puns and Pooh. He also enjoyed travel; including many trips abroad, family Broadway trips and camping trips close to home.

He is survived by his four children and their spouses/partners; Elizabeth Rathgeb Pratt and Dan Pratt of Amesbury, MA, Laura Rathgeb and David Leopold of Bedminster, PA, Donald Rathgeb Jr and Cherie Bergeron of Burlington, VT and Mary Jo Rathgeb and Michael S. Thomas of Richmond, VT; 7 grandchildren, Nick and Melissa Pratt, Henry Leopold, Caitlyn Rathgeb, her partner Bill Austin, Lauren Rathgeb, her partner Devon Bradford, Shannon Kinlund, her husband Gabe Kinlund, Ryan Fitzpatrick and his wife Emily Fitzpatrick; and 3 great grandchildren, Henry, Sheperd and Hazel Kinlund; his sister Mary Elizabeth Rathgeb and many nieces and nephews. He was predeceased by his parents, brothers and wife, Joanne.

Relatives and friends are invited to visiting hours on Friday November 16, 2018 from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. at the Ready Funeral Home Mountain View Chapel 68 Pinecrest Drive, Essex Junction. A Mass of Christian Burial will be said on Saturday November 17, 2018 at 10:00 am at The Chapel of St. Michael the Archangel on the Campus of St. Michael’s College. A private burial will follow the Mass.

In lieu of flowers, gifts in his memory may be made to the Joanne Rathgeb scholarship Fund:

In lieu of flowers, please consider a donation to The Rathgeb Scholarship. (Avail. For two weeks) Link: www.smcvt.edu/giveback Select “The Rathgeb Scholarship” from the drop-down menu.

Or, a donation maybe be mailed to St. Michael’s College, 1 Winooski Park, Box 256, Colchester, VT 05439. Please write “The Rathgeb Scholarship” in the memo line.

Well remembered

at 1994 commencement

Donald Rathgeb at Commencement in 1994.

Gregory Niquette ’95, joined an outpouring of memories about Rathgeb on social media from former students and actors once they learned the news on Monday of their former mentor’s death. Niquette shared:  “Today we say goodbye to an important figure in our lives, Professor Donald Rathgeb. It is truly the end of an era. Little did I know walking through those doors at McCarthy Art’s Center on the first week of September 1991 that my life would change completely and I would forever be indebted to a man and a woman who would help shape me as an artist, as a life-long student of learning and as a human being … Mr. R was an inspiring director, a grandfatherly presence, a friend, a peer and above all else our Winnie The Pooh …. None of us would be the people we have become if it wasn’t for that beautiful, white-whiskered, giant of a man who we all loved and adored. His influence is immeasurable! … may some solace come with time to your family, friends, students and colleagues who all love and adore you.”

Another former student simply posted the start of the the prayer to Saint Genesius, patron saint of actors – Harrigan said that reciting this prayer before theatrical performances is a custom the Rathgebs brought to Saint Michael’s from Catholic University, and to this day, an ecumenical version of it still is said by actors and crew before each Saint Michael’s Main Stage performance. Harrigan shared the original version brought by the Rathgebs:

“O God, our Lord, Creator and Director, Grant that the talent you have given us, the power to sway emotions, to communicate feelings and thoughts who those who watch our acting, may be directed to your greater praise, reverence, and service. Thus whether on the stage of the Theatre or on life’s broader stage, may we never lose sight of the roles portrayed for our imitation by our Lord Jesus Christ and his dearest mother Mary. St. Genesius, pray for us.”

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