A packed house bids farewell to Ron Anderson: ‘He took his show on the road’

Stories and Salutations honor Ron Anderson at the Springer Opera House

The Springer family of actors, students, benefactors and friends filled the house to share stories, celebrate and embrace the longtime Springer Theatre associate artistic director and founder of the Springer Theatre Academy who died following a tw
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The Springer family of actors, students, benefactors and friends filled the house to share stories, celebrate and embrace the longtime Springer Theatre associate artistic director and founder of the Springer Theatre Academy who died following a tw

Ron Anderson’s final production played out over nearly 15 hours in three distinct acts and on three different stages.

A husband, father, actor, teacher, mentor and friend, Anderson died Wednesday after a 22-month public battle with pancreatic cancer. Just after midnight Friday, several hundred people, most of the them well under 30, gathered at the Springer Opera House’s secondary stage. One after another, they talked about the mark Anderson had left on their lives.

Saturday morning, a traditional Episcopal service was held at Anderson’s church, St. Thomas on Hilton Avenue.

The final act, the one that brought the house down, was set on the Springer main stage, a place Anderson, 64, had worked as a director, actor and educator for the last 20 years. A full house of 688 people, including his wife, Debbie, and son, Max, gathered for the two-hour production. It had all the elements of quality theater — drama, laughter and the final scene.

There were songs, tributes and tears.

Jimmy Elder, pastor of First Baptist Church and a close friend of Anderson’s, talked about why Anderson decided to share his story with his many theater students, as well as churches, civic organizations, reporters and anybody who would listen.

“He knew he was going to make the journey and he knew he could take every one of us safely along the way,” Elder said. “But his faith was strong enough, his heart big enough and his love great enough, and his confidence was he was going to be fine here in this life or the next.”

Few new Ron Anderson better than his lifelong friend and former St. Thomas rector Doug Hahn. The two were Sunday School classmates in the fourth grade in Macon, Ga., and their friendship continued at the University of Georgia. Eventually, Hahn became Anderson’s priest at St. Thomas.

“He considered his work as an actor and a teacher as nothing less than the work of a minister,” Hahn said. “Nothing less than work that would help him and his community grow in life and wider spaces.”

There was also humor to it, Hahn said. He told the story about a man in the circus, one that he and Anderson often shared, privately. The man walked into a restaurant and had a terrible stench about him.

“What is it?” those in the coffee shop asked.

“I tend to the elephants, feed them hay and take care of their water, and occasionally, when one of them gets stopped up, I get a big ladder, climb to the top and put on a long-armed glove, then I give that elephant an enema. I jump out of the way, and sometimes I don’t jump fast enough.”

The people in the restaurant were taken aback, Hahn said.

“Why would you want that job?” the people in the coffee shop asked. “That sounds awful.”

“What?” the man asked, “and give up show business?”

St. Thomas Rector Grace Burton-Edwards told those that filled the church before the noon hour that one of her favorite stories about Anderson was how he almost became a Baptist minister but could not get through the seminary admission interview with a crusty dean. After an hour conversation in which Anderson wore a tie with a hula dancer on it, both men decided he might not be ready for Baptist seminary.

“He almost, almost became a Baptist preacher,” Burton-Edwards said. “Thank goodness that professor didn’t see it. What a waste that would have been.”

The congregation broke into laughter.

“Ron did not go to the seminary, he did not become a Baptist preacher,” she said. “His ministry was not bound to a church. Instead, he took his show on the road.”

And the Springer stage, just before 5 Saturday afternoon, was where that roadshow ended. In a room full of former students and those who helped him teach them at the Springer Theatre Academy, which Anderson grew from 135 students in 1996 to 631 this summer, the traditions of the academy were on full display.

Springer Producing Artistic Director Paul Pierce spent more than 20 minutes talking about his co-worker and friend since their college days. Pierce lured Anderson back to Georgia in 1996 from First Stage Theater in Milwaukee to grow the Columbus academy.

“The Springer swallows up small ideas,” Pierce said of his conversation with Anderson as he was making his pitch. “... What I am going to be looking for is a big idea. ... The idea over the first five years after he came back was far bigger than anything I could have imagined.”

After the academy’s initial success, Pierce went back to Anderson with another idea.

“Why don’t we change the world?” Pierce said. “And that’s what happened.”

Pierce pointed to the avalanche of social media response as Anderson’s final days played out, first with hospitalization, then a short hospice stay before his death. Under the Facebook and Twitter hashtags, #ronstrong and #ronsarmy, many people weighed in on Anderson’s impact.

When Pierce learned of Anderson’s death, he said it felt like a “hole had been blown in our universe.” He then reflected on the fact that one of Anderson’s gifts was he filled holes when he found them.

“It hit me the first six to eight hours on Wednesday,” Pierce said. “Since then, I have noticed the outpouring of love begin to fill that hole. If you see a hole, fill it.”

Elder noted that Anderson’s “ovation at the end was one of grace, love and support.”

And it was left to Sally Baker, the person who replaced Anderson as the director of the Springer Theatre Academy, to end the day. She called more than 30 former academy teachers to the stage to help. They did “salutations,” a decompression exercise that is done at the end of each academy day.

“We want to end this the way we have every day for 20 years,” Baker said.

Baker asked everyone to stand and look at the large screen behind her. A video of Anderson leading the salutations in 2015 played as everyone stood, stretched their arms and moved in unison. People then filed out of the Springer, a place that Burton-Edwards described as “one of Ron’s churches.”

Chuck Williams: 706-571-8510, @chuckwilliams