Look at the photographic portrait Dennis Wile made of former Tennessean theater critic Clara Hieronymus and you’ll see this wonderful centenarian – she is 100 today – as I’ve seen her over the years: She’s leaning forward and looking through bright, clear eyes that intelligently focus on every detail.
Trying to sum up this incredible person in one article would be a fool’s errand, and there are many people that have known her better and longer so I would also be guilty of hubris.
What to write about her then? Well, there are too many biographical items about the Mississippi native to note, but here are some facts many might not know: she earned a bachelor’s degree by the age of 18 (in business administration, cum laude, from the University of Tulsa; she later finished a master’s degree in sociology and social work with a major in child welfare – more on that subject later – at the University of Oklahoma at Norman and also has an Honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts from Rhode Island College), and before she spent 40 years covering theater (and other beats) for Music City’s morning daily newspaper she had a stint as a labor market analyst for the United States Employment Security Commission. On the personal front, she was married for 58 years to S.C. “Hi” Hieronymus until his death in 1995, and they had a son and a daughter; Hieronymus now lives in Savannah, Tenn., with son Bruce and daughter-in-law Martha (more on Savannah later as well).
Many longtime theater artists remember her tough but fair assessments of their work; other folks fondly recall the theater tours she led to New York and London – my grandparents went with her to the Big Apple in 1967, and my grandfather happily spoke about that trip on several occasions. I wish I had been older then so I could have gone with them!
Hieronymus has never been one for tooting her own horn; with her natural humility she has always downplayed her numerous accolades and accomplishments. She was one of the co-founders of the American Theatre Critics Association in 1974, chairing the organization from 1981-84 and serving as its executive secretary from 1984-2001 (the only other member to hold that position was esteemed New York critic Henry Hewes from 1974-1983). She is now an emeritus member because of her service to ATCA and her distinguished career.
(For a terrific interview that covers several personal and professional points in Hieronymus’ life, “A Deep and Abiding Love” by Damien Jaques, get a copy of “Under the Copper Beech: Conversations with American Theater Critics” edited by Jeffrey Eric Jenkins that was published in 2004 and is distributed by the Foundation of the American Theatre Critics Association.)
Yes, there’s so much to admire about this highly accomplished woman, but I think her concern for the welfare of children is possibly her greatest legacy. That concern was powerfully demonstrated when Hieronymus, Los Angeles Times theater critic Dan Sullivan and Anchorage Press publisher/editor and playwright/director Orlin Corey toured children’s theaters across the nation in 1972 to select productions for an international children’s theater conference.
When Nashville Children’s Theatre honored Hieronymus at its 2004 Grand Day benefit, Producing Director Scot Copeland said that tour, and the writings that Hieronymus and her colleagues did as a result, “started a snowball effect that resulted in a sweeping paradigm shift in American children’s theater from an essentially amateur endeavor to one that is approached with the highest caliber of professional artistry.”
Here’s some of what she wrote about that tour:
“…Having seen in less than one month 16 children’s theatre productions coast-to-coast, my predominant emotion is one of profound melancholy. Our children have much to forgive us for. With rare exceptions – for which we give grateful thanks – what is being done in this country in the name of children’s theater is a woeful and wasteful disgrace.
“The irony is that those who give of their time, energy and money to children’s theatre are almost always sincere in their efforts and motivated by enthusiastic idealism. They talk a good game but have virtually no insight into the gap that exists between glibly parroted philosophies and the actual fruits of their labor – the works staged for child audiences.
“It must be accepted as the obligation of children’s theatre to erase the old opinion of its work as ‘shower-curtain theatre’ or ‘kiddies shows’. In this connection, and I offer it for what it is worth and one may read his own meaning into it, of the five companies selected coast-to-coast, four are professionally cast, professionally designed and professionally directed.”
I know my love for theater began with an NCT production of Beauty and the Beast in that same year; the art form has enriched my life beyond measure. But looking far wider than those that love and/or work in (or write about) theater, Hieronymus has encouraged a pursuit of artistic excellence that has fired the imaginations of many that went on to work in fields other than theater as well as live in locations other than Nashville.
What gift can we give this incomparable lady who has given us so much as she celebrates 100 years? Perhaps our thanks for her tireless and passionate advocacy and our promise to use her shining inspiration as our example are appropriate. And for those wondering what Hieronymus is up to now, look at two photos taken Wednesday during a birthday party for her at the nursing home adjacent to the Hardin County Medical Center that she and her daughter-in-law visit each week:
Clara Hieronymus and Savannah guitar player Emmett Garner dance to piano music played by Martha Hieronymus. Nationally-known fiddler Wayne Jerrolds also provided music during the birthday party.
You can write her at 50 Spring St., Savannah TN 38372.
*Photos courtesy Dennis Wile, Yvonne Hanna and Martha Hieronymus.