Ron Anderson dies after lengthy battle with cancer

Video: Ron Anderson to return to the Springer stage in Tuna Christmas

A year after being diagnosed with terminal cancer, Ron Anderson feels great. So good that he will be back on the Springer Opera House stage during the holiday season playing his role in Tuna Christmas.
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A year after being diagnosed with terminal cancer, Ron Anderson feels great. So good that he will be back on the Springer Opera House stage during the holiday season playing his role in Tuna Christmas.

Columbus actor and children’s theater educator Ron Anderson died early Wednesday morning in Columbus Hospice House, surrounded by his wife, Debbie, and close friends.

He was 64.

For nearly two years, Anderson, beloved by the community, especially the thousands of children who have come through the Springer Theater Academy, has battled cancer in a very public way. On Oct. 1, 2014, he was diagnosed with inoperable Stage 4 pancreatic cancer and doctors told him he had about 12 months to live.

In those two years, he has spoken to dozens of churches and civic groups. He even returned to the Springer Opera House stage in December to star with his longtime friend and boss Paul Pierce in “A Tuna Christmas,” a play the two of them have perfected over the last 14 years. Anderson was not in the play, a farce about Christmastime in a small town, the year before because of his illness.

Anderson used his illness as a life lesson, said Jens Rasmussen, an actor who met Anderson at First Stage Academy in Milwaukee.

“From the beginning of his illness, I felt like he had written a new lesson plan,” Rasmussen said Wednesday inside the Springer, as students and friends gathered to comfort each other. “That new plan was ‘How to teach people to die.’”

And Anderson taught that lesson with great passion and urgency.

In early May, Anderson, despite a chemotherapy treatment the previous day, went to A.J. McClung Memorial Stadium for the American Cancer Society Relay for Life. There he was met by some of his former Springer Theatre Academy students.

He thanked them for giving up their Friday night to support a worthy cause, something bigger than them.

“There are things worth fighting against,” he told the children, mostly teenagers. “You fight against prejudice. You fight against bias. There are things on the outside you fight, and cancer and chemotherapy are two of those things.”

But that wasn’t Anderson’s only point. He talked about the struggle and fight within.

“The biggest fight is on the inside,” he told them. “Once you win that fight, all the other fights are easy.”

Anderson’s saying to his students was, “Life skills through stage skills.”

Abbey Crowley, a 16-year-old junior at Brookstone School, is one of those students Anderson has touched.

“I am a person addicted to structure, so naturally when Ron asked me about my plans for the future, I would articulate an exactly calculated plan,” Crowley said. “Ron responded, ‘That’s all good stuff, but life is an improv. Planning is what you do before life actually starts.’ Plans change, expectations can be wrong, and there is no map. Ron was a comedic reminder that that is OK.”

She said Anderson’s impact on those he taught cannot be measured.

“He personally impacted thousands of individuals on a one-to-one basis,” she said. “It is no wonder that our community is hurt and suffering. But it is important to remember that this is an indicator not only of Ron’s impact, but of his incontestable legacy that cannot fade.”

The play Anderson selected for the Theatre Academy to perform in the summer of 2014, just before he was diagnosed, was a preview of what was to come. That summer the students presented the classic “Charlotte’s Web.”

“That’s a tough play,” said Sally Baker, who took over the Theatre Academy when Anderson retired last year. “There is a scene where Charlotte dies. We talked about what to do with that scene and how to present it. Ron finally said, ‘Death is part of life and they have to learn that.’”

Anderson’s cancer journey began about two months after that show, when he was diagnosed.

As word of Anderson entering hospice spread on social media in the last three days, many of those students responded with online tributes, posting photos of them hugging “Mr. Ron,” and emotional tributes of how he touched their lives.

Theresa Garcia Robertson and her seven siblings were all touched by Anderson and the theater academy. She was one of the friends with him when he passed away.

“Ron Anderson saved me from myself,” she said. “He loved me. For me. He encouraged me. He told me hard things. He gave me tough love. He made me feel like I could conquer the world. He taught me that plans are overrated. He taught me to trust myself. He taught me how to focus, how to enthusiastically be, to always strive to improve, to be a team player, and to be the most outstanding version of myself. In every part of my life, I have sought his advice and council. We haven’t always agreed, but he never once judged me or my choices.”

And he did that with countless students and children, many of them in that awkward stage of life.

“He has this knack for making you feel as if you are the most important person in the room,” Robertson said. “He is a builder of confidence, of courage, and of the ability to fail with pride... at least you tried.”

Anderson, a Macon native and University of Georgia graduate with a degree in English, came back to his home state from Milwaukee in 1996. He was running a successful children’s theater academy there when his college buddy Pierce offered him a job building a similar program in Columbus.

At the time, Anderson was offered an annual salary of $22,000 and a challenge — birth and grow the Springer Theatre Academy. There were four employees at the Springer Opera House 19 years ago. Today there are 20, and the academy has been a big part of that growth. “I would say that $22,000 was a wise investment,” Pierce said.

Asked how many children Anderson had taught over the years, Baker paused.

“Maybe 8,000 to 10,000 — and that is conservative,” she said. “But it is more than that. Those that have taught or been in the academy, have gone out and started other programs — they are in Pennsylvania; Athens, Ga.; Texas; Orlando; Omaha; and Virginia.”

Anderson has been spending his time focusing on what is important. He has given a number of speeches about his illness and his attitude combating cancer. He has become one of the faces of cancer survival in a community that seems to have more than its fair share of the disease.

Anderson spoke to the local Rotary clubs, using his love of baseball to encourage those dealing with tough times to stay in the batter’s box and to keep swinging.

In November, Anderson gave the Thanksgiving testimony at First Baptist Church in downtown Columbus. The scripture that led into the testimony was Psalm 126:5: “Those who sow with tears will reap with songs of joy.”

“So, I’m working on a new plan — one without a timeline,” he said. “It sort of comes down to this: Live every day fully, focus on what’s important. That’s it, that’s the whole ballgame. And I don’t have a bucket list. I guess I should get one — people keep asking me — but I really don’t. It’s kind of an overrated idea, if you think about it.”

Ron’s personal biography describes his life this way: “Among the jobs Ron has worked over the years while trying to make a living in theatre are pizza delivery guy, construction worker, college teacher, bartender, mime, saw mill worker, janitor, carpenter, stilt walker, fry cook at a ski lodge, factory worker, middle school teacher, ice cream truck driver, singing telegram deliverer, snow plow operator and baker of communion wafers.”

It was the making of those communion wafers in Wisconsin that would help prepare Ron and Debbie for their life as a family. One of the employees of that small company was a man with a form of autism. This was before Ron and Debbie had their only child, Max, who is autistic.

“Things happen in your life that prepare you for the things you need to be prepared for,” Anderson said recently.

Anderson is survived by his wife, Debbie, and his son, Max.

A public celebration of Anderson’s life will be held Saturday at 2:30 p.m. at the Springer Opera House in Columbus.

Chuck Williams: 706-571-8510, @chuckwilliams

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