Simple Brilliance: A Tribute to My Friend Stephen Landon

“Thank you my friend.”

That is the last line in the last email I received from Associate Professor of Theatre Stephen Landon. I just learned this morning that Stephen died, far too soon for someone who had so much to give this campus and this community.

As I grow older, I have become part of the club where the deaths of family and friends becomes more and more frequent. One of the first things I inevitably turn to is my email inbox, desperately searching for the emails that connected me to those people. It is as if reading old emails makes it seem as if they haven’t passed, but are somehow still here, capable of replying. There I was this morning, desperately searching for all my “Landon, Stephen” emails, trying to hold on to a connection to a very special person.

I got to know Stephen as part of the Commencement Committee. Some years ago, we were getting complaints that Perani Arena did not look special enough for our commencement ceremonies. Someone on the committee suggested that we turn to the Theatre Department for help. Stephen willingly joined our committee.

The first order of business was to go over to Perani to do a site survey so Stephen could get an idea of where there might be some hope for aesticially improving the ceremony. He looked around and then said, “Why don’t we turn off the lights?”

I laughed because I thought he was making a joke about the arena, but it turns out he was quite serious. Stephen’s first idea was to turn off the lights in the audience area to create a focus on the floor and stage for the ceremony. It was simple brilliance, Stephen’s trademark style.

Once we figured out lighting, there were other improvements Stephen made. Instead of the rented small flower arrangements we typically got for the stage, Stephen worked with the florist to create the right focal points for the stage. He had lots of touches of simple brilliance—he staggered the heights of the logo banners, he cut down the use of overly-fussy fake flowers to create simple structures of grace and elegance. Our ceremonies began to have the professional look of a true set designer. The work he did made the day even more special for our graduates and their families. It was all thanks to Stephen.

Stephen always arrived early for each ceremony, never complaining when I would ask the committee to begin work before 8:00 a.m. He would try to calm me down before each ceremony when my nerves would make me incredibly over-dramatic. He would put his hands on my shoulders and say, “Everything is going to be fine.” He was always right.

Stephen helped my department far beyond his contributions to commencement.  Whenever I called with a request, he fulfilled it. One time, we were getting pictures of him for various marketing pieces. He was working on the set for Into the Woods. It was beautiful and mysterious. We had him posed with the set in the backdrop, arms folded looking at the camera. After patiently waiting while he got a few shots he said, “You know, I feel like I’m posing for my senior pictures. Could we try getting some shots as I work?” And, the shots of him simply working were the best. Again, simple brilliance.

One thing Stephen was known for was riding a bike. When I learned some years ago he was teaching a first-year course to freshmen which involved taking them on bikes to locations around the city, I wanted to follow along, getting pictures and video. Of course, Stephen agreed to help. I remember driving a golf cart with my crew behind Stephen and his students on bikes all around the city. Stephen led the way to Kearsley Park, the Farmers’ Market, the Cultural Center, and finally the Whaley Historical House.  The act of teaching students about the rich history of their community while going for a bike ride was Stephen’s simple brilliance at its best: creating a memorable experience to help instill a sense of civic pride.

Even though I felt I knew quite a bit about Flint and some of its most famous landmarks, I learned things I never knew that day. At the Whaley Historical House we all went in for a private tour. As we wandered around for a bit, Stephen pulled me aside and said, “I have to show you the coolest thing in this house.” I thought he was going to show me some antique or picture, but instead, he pulled out an old ledger from the turn of the century. It was the original Citizens National bank book of the Flint Road Cart Company on display, with the first entries of September 28, 1886, being deposits of $1,000 each by Durant and Dort—the first document in a series of events that led to the creation of General Motors. Robert J. Whaley had been the president of Citizens National Bank at the time. Leave it to Stephen to find the most unassuming treasure in the entire museum in an old bank book. Simple brilliance.

I wish I could fire off an email to Stephen with one of my many requests. Could he help with a student recruitment event? Could we use the Theatre for an activity? The answers always came with commitments of help. He almost never said no. In that last email I had, he had made a small request to me. “Of course we can do that,” I responded to him. His response was: “Thank you my friend.”

My friend. That little phrase means so much right now when I can’t tell him how much I appreciated all the help and guidance. Thank you a thousand times over, Stephen. You were simply brilliant.