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Cleveland stars in her own show

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GOOD TIMES: Linda Cleveland, left, talks with well wishers at her retirement open house Sunday. Cleveland is retiring from being the theatre and auditorium director for Rossville Consolidate School District. One of her highest priorities has always been for her students to have a good time with every production.
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CAST MEMBERS:From left, Carson Crow, Nolan Deboy, Adam Easterday and Brenna Gottschalk were amont the former students who came to wish Linda Cleveland well at her retirement open house Sunday. Each of the students performed under Cleveland’s direction at least since middle school, with Crow first taking the stage in second grade.
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AWARDS: A table is lined with awards, scrapbooks, photographs and other memorabilia from Linda Cleveland’s standout role as director of the Rossville auditorium. Cleveland was celebrated on her retirement at an open house Sunday.

BY SHARON BARDONNER - sbardonner@ftimes.com

Current students, former students, other directors, fellow teachers and members of the community visited the Rossville Presbyterian Church Sunday afternoon to the open house celebrating Linda Cleveland’s retirement as the auditorium director for the Rossville Consolidated School District.

Cleveland retired from teaching three years ago after a five-decade career in the classroom educating kids on accounting and technology.

But it was theatre that pulled her into the classroom to begin with.

At 16, she worked as a student director under J.T. Eiler, who was a speech and drama coach at Rossville for many years. “He’s the biggest reason I became a teacher. I worked with him on ‘You Can’t Take It With You,’” she said when interviewed in 2016 after being chosen as the Grand Marshal for the Rossville Summer’s End Parade.

“Then when the auditorium was built in 1999, I was asked to be the auditorium director to take care of the auditorium and handle theatre production,” she said.

On Sunday, former cast members and production people steadily streamed in to wish Cleveland well as she pulls the curtain down on this stage of her life.

One of the event’s organizers, Jenny Murphy, said Cleveland was one of her speech coaches. In turn, Murphy was in one of Cleveland’s first shows at Rossville – “Books and Crooks.”

Murphy took the stage again under Cleveland’s direction for “Ghostess with the Mostest.”

“(Linda’s) always been full of energy, creative and someone who always sees the glass as half full,” said Murphy. “She has the patience but also the flexibility to make anything work. With her, always, ‘the show must go on.’”

Murphy credited Cleveland with appreciating that people like to laugh and wanting to entertain them.

Cleveland was also good about finding spots for kids who hadn’t found their niche, said Murphy. “She would make them a part of something – she’d find them something they could do.”

Ben Waltz was the choir director at Rossville schools for five years and worked with Cleveland on three musicals during that time. 

“I took care of the music and worked with the kids on it, and she ran the show. She ran that room,” he said.

Waltz’s first teaching position was at Rossville, starting mid-year. “She was the one who immediately started helping me.”

Since leaving Rossville, he has been at West Lafayette and just last year took over the junior high choir in Fishers.

Waltz said Cleveland perfectly exemplifies the ideal of lifelong learning. 

“She is a great role model for the kids because she’s passionate about learning and doing new things.

“The kids loved working for Linda. She’d show the kids what to do, and they learned to be so independent and were always learning on the job.”

Cleveland was also masterful at knowing someone who knew someone who could get any job done, Waltz said. “She has all these connections and in just a short time she could always find the answer or find someone who had it,” he observed.

It has been Cleveland who built the pride that the Rossville community has in its auditorium productions, its theatre and its educational system, Waltz said, adding she has made a huge impact on every child in in the district, kindergarten through 12th grade.

“Whether they worked with her directly or not, she had a huge impact on everyone,” he said. “They’re all doing great things.”

Many of the young adults at the open house Sunday started acting with Cleveland in middle school. Among them were Nolan Deboy, Adam Easterday and Brenna Gottschalk. A fourth, Carson Crow, took the stage for the first time in second grade for “The Music Man.”

Crow has continued in theatre since that time and has been involved in countless shows with Cleveland – both as an actor on stage and as a member of the technical crew on lights and sound.

“She’s an incredible mentor,” he said. “She helped shape me as a person.”

After graduating from Rossville High School, Crow went on to Ball State University where he studied lighting design and then moved on to directing after he realized how much he missed acting. 

At college, he was a student leader on the creative team for the Discovery New Theatre Festival for three years and director for two shows. 

“With directing, I can participate in both sides – with design and the technical aspects and working with the actors shaping the story. Theatre is all about how to tell a story,” said Crow.

“I’m so grateful I’ve had her. We are all family. For all the experiences and opportunities I’ve gotten while at Rossville, I’m so, so grateful to Linda for all she taught me.”

Crow’s next stop is New York, where he’ll be moving at the end of the summer. He has applications out to theatre companies and one day plans to start his own.

“I’m having a wonderful day,” Cleveland said of the event. “I’ve enjoyed five decades working with wonderful people.”

Cleveland noted that most of the kids she started with when the auditorium was built in 1999 have now graduated. “This was the last senior year I’ve had kids from kindergarten on up.”

“It’s time to go,” she said.

But Cleveland’s not leaving theatre. She’s officially retiring as the auditorium director for Rossville schools, but she’ll be involved with productions at the Rohrman Performing Arts Center at Lafayette Jefferson High School and with the Long Center in Lafayette.

“As long as theaters are wheelchair accessible, I’m gonna to be there,” she said.