The School of Theatre & Dance lost one of its alums this Winter: Terry Michael Chance. While it's always challenging to say goodbye to someone who meant so much to this community, it's also an opportunity to share with you just how significant story telling is to our craft (and I must admit, Terry's amazing life offers an array of stories that I heard about ten years ago when I took over directing the program in Lubbock). I only met Terry once, at a dinner in Boston with his wife, Annie Pluto, our director of marketing, Cory Norman, and his mentor (now retired), our own Dr. Linda Donahue. But he wrote me often, always excited about the growth of our program. Because of this, and the stories shared, I feel like I know him well.
Terry may have earned his PhD with us, but folks remember him first and foremost as a cowboy from the West Texas Plains in Lubbock. Many of the stories I've heard about him originate from his semester-long trip to Seville with Dr. Donahue and Cory Norman, told from their perspectives. But I also know that he was a mentee of Conway Twitty, with whom he traveled with on and off for years, meeting such luminaries as Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, Merle Haggard, Loretta Lynn, and, maybe most importantly, Elvis, who shared with him advice about how best to deliver gospel music: “If the song doesn't minister to you, then how can you expect it to minister to others?”
Given a guitar when he was 5, Terry moved from Lubbock to Oklahoma in sixth grade, and as fortune would have it, was a backdoor neighbor to Conway Twitty (even dating his daughter). He hung out in Conway's music room learning music, and after a stint in the army, he joined Twitty on the road, and this led to his career as a gospel singer.
Terry learned much from Twitty, as he explains in an earlier interview:
Terry, this is one cutthroat business. Everybody's looking for the number one song. But the thing that's gonna allow you to live this thing out is integrity. When you say you are gonna do something, you do it. When you sign a contract, honor it.
And honor it he did.
For over 35 years, Terry ministered through gospel music, singing alongside Pat Boone, the Hinson Family, and Carmen, winning Best Gospel Album of the Year and releasing 10 albums while earning his doctorate in Fine Arts at Texas Tech, writing a full-length play, and running his own production company. But Dr. Donahue remembers him more as a country/western singer, because, of course, he loved telling stories and country music is all about the narrative.
This, ironically, contributed to his love of teaching, especially since Twitty encouraged him always to share his gift with those who are younger. And when Twitty died, onstage of an aneurism in 1993, Terry realized that, rather than perform in front of thousands of people, he wanted to educate, to share his love of the arts, to do theatre. So, at the age of 41 he returned to school, earning a BA in Communication Arts with an emphasis on theatre at Southwestern Oklahoma State University, followed by an MA from Oklahoma University and a PhD from TTU.
A chance meeting at a higher education workshop in Chicago introduced him to the love of his life, Dr. Anne Pluto, who asked him to contribute original cowboy music to a production of The Merry Wives of Windsor, and this became the subject of his dissertation. The collaboration was so successful, it led to his being offered a Paul A. Kaplan Visiting Artist Fellowship at Lesley and a music class on writing ballads—maybe his favorite form of storytelling. At Lesley University in Boston, Dr. Chance even taught the class, "Writing Ballads for Personal Expression,” inspired by and connected to his work as music director and composer for The Merchant of Venice. He was often afforded the opportunity to work alongside his wife, and he told me once that this made him “a very lucky guy.”
Terry often said, “Conway taught me to write. The basic thing is, all you gotta do is sit back and tell a little story, just talk to the people.” And to his credit, Terry Chance was the sorta guy people tell stories about. Cory Norman recounts an exchange with their host family, when both spent a semester in Seville, under the leadership of Dr. Donahue:
When Terry and I spent a semester in Seville, we stayed in an apartment owned by a terrific woman named Trudy who came over once a day to bring groceries, prepare meals, and wash our clothes. (I know, what a life!)
Trudy only spoke Spanish. Neither Terry nor I was fluent, but with the help of our trusty Spanish/English dictionary (this was 2006, more than a year before iPhones and apps changed the world), charades, and loud English, we were able to communicate. Terry had an uncanny ability to speak almost-appropriate Spanish words by adding “-ado” to the end of similar-sounding English words. Think “communicado.”
One afternoon over lunch, Terry recounted a story to me and Trudy about the actions of a group of American girls who he felt had thoroughly embarrassed themselves at bus stop.
“Muy embarrassado!” “Chicas americanas!” Terry repeated these phrases, and almost-Spanish words like “auto-busses” in disgust, with giant gestures and loud English words like “angry” and “dumb,” all while shaking his head. He was emphatic, I was laughing, and Trudy was confused.
“Embarazado?” asked repeatedly.
“Si! Muy, muy embarrassado,” Terry would say with as much disgust as he could muster. Trudy quietly leaned over to me, motioning her hand over her tummy with the international sign of “pregnant” and softly repeated, “embarazado?”
I'm not sure what Trudy heard in Terry's original story, but she was quite relieved to learn the girls weren't pregnant.
Dr. Donahue also has shared with me countless memories of Seville, but none as colorful as those that include Terry:
In Seville, Terry was intent on purchasing a flamenco guitar, which--who knew? --is different than a regular acoustic guitar. The Director of the TTU Center, Douglas Inglis, offered to accompany Terry to a workshop/store where the owner made handmade guitars. Terry bought one and proceeded to play music that sounded much like classical Spanish guitar music which he just “picked up” by being in Seville, the birthplace of flamenco. One day, Terry sat on his apartment outdoor balcony, closed his eyes, and played the music of Andalucía with his new guitar (or “GEE-tar,” as Terry would say). Soon, a crowd of locals gathered outside and began clapping because of his excellent (and new) knowledge of the difficult rhythm of the very specific classical Spanish music.
After that, Terry was rarely without his new guitar, and once, at the Guadalquiver River in Seville, he played authentic-sounding Spanish classical-sounding music so well that the local Sevillanos threw money in his guitar case in appreciation of his prowess--not bad for a Lubbock/Oklahoma cowboy who just had a knack and the talent to participate and appreciate many cultures.
Terry credits his father with his love of narrative, recounting how he always encouraged Terry to carry his harmonica with him to tell stories when working the several thousand acres of his ranch in Oklahoma. And everyone who knew him appreciated the fact that Terry never met a stranger: in my mind, he embodies the frontier spirit of West Texas that my wife and I have grown to love. As Linda Donahue writes, “Terry was one-of-a-kind. Unique, to say the least. I will never know anyone like him. He brought laughter and joy to my life and our world, and he will be so greatly missed.”
There are many other stories of Terry, some ribald, some hilarious, many inappropriate for this newsletter, and all suffused with the sweetness that Terry exuded on the streets of Seville or in the classroom. A born teacher, Terry loved his students, often reminding them, “Don't take your art and your talents for granted. Cherish and nourish them. Enjoy what you are doing, but you also have to plant seeds and let them grow.”
Those seeds that Terry planted are still alive and well in the School of Theatre & Dance, and while he is indeed missed, he left a legacy of tales, many of them “tall,” that keep his memory alive, even for those who barely knew him.
And we thank him for reminding us that life (and yes, even art) is simply a series of stories remembered.
(Pictured above: Terry's belt buckle from the 1995 Great American Cattle Drive. Terry rode his mule, Curley, from Ft. Worth, TX to Miles City, MT.)