STEPHEN COLE: A teenager's heart gave him another 20 year's of life and he gave generously of himself in that time and before. Image provided, if someone knows the photographer please contact us on the tinytowntimes.com Facebook page. Thank you.
Tiny Town, USA – My memory of Stephen Cole predates my later associations with him as a director and acting coach at two very different community theater companies.
The first goes back to a time when the DeWitt Cafe was a morning gathering place for many raconteurs and emerging local artist sand served well as place to nurse a grudging hangover with the strongest coffee then sold in tiny town.
Cole was friendly with interweaving circles a set of friends of mine back, students, some drop-outs, some like me struggling for an identity and a foothold in the world and finding Ithaca a welcome and tolerant place for all manner of expression, arts-related or pedestrian. Still is, I suppose. It is less so however, now that Stephen is gone.
Perhaps it is unfair to say, but I think the mentors and guides who oversaw the arts in the 70s were of a different stripe and I had no idea that Cole, other than a cowboy-looking belt buckle that hinted at something more than a kindly theater prof, was a force among the students he coached and a guide in the world of stage and life.
He was open and treated me as a friend from the get-go. He always seemed to attract a number of charming young co-eds to his table. I was very shy then and remember, after one of these students departed, saying something like “I don’t know what it is about her, but I it sure makes me want to know more.”
With eyebrows raised Cole locked me in his blue-eyed stare: “If you feel that way about her what are you doing sitting here with me? Going after her!”
I demurred. I was 19 and didn't think much of myself. But his advice summed him up in many ways: If you wanted to know more about something, don’t putz around, go after it. He also listened to my many tales of woe and made himself open to me when I was a totally unformed kid with only a smart mouth to front me.
I would meet him later and often at the Asiatic Garden, once a fixture on West State Street. Cole loved Chinese-American food. That blended into knowing him as a professional working with in the community theater setting, first at the dearly defunct Firehouse Theater and later, at the former Kitchen theater. In the mean time we crossed paths on several occasions. One of them was the visit of Jimmy Smits to his alma mater at Cornell. Smits was eager to spend some quality time with Cole, so important was the man in his development.
Soon after I got to see what Smits was talking about in a hugely fun production Cole directed of The Foreigner, a hit at the Firehouse. Cole dedicated much of his time to acting and directing at the small theater, one of his traits being the willingness to do theater work wherever it was happening. During that production we had a lot of private talks and I learned a lot more about his amazing return from death. He suffered heart problems and outlived a failed heart bypass operation in 1987; eight years later he underwent a heart transplant, receiving the donor heart of a 14-year old female. He often repeated his good fortune for surviving a protracted recovery, saying that he “died twice” on the operating table — and went “out of body both times.”
I asked him what he meant by that and he said exactly what I’d heard of before from near-death experience narratives — and dismissed: Cole said his consciousness literally left his body, twice, and he was quite aware of everything that was going on around him, with something like a bird’s eye view of the situation.
When I read his obit and saw he’d died on Aug. 11, I studied the age he is said to have completed closed up the space we knew as Stephen Cole: 82.
Maybe. But 82 with what I calculated as a 34-year old heart: He was still a young man. And that’s how I remember him, older and wiser and younger, in many ways, than people half his age, and always always ready to listen, to encourage to convince — and do it with courage.
After working under his direction for a play called Memory of Water, at the Kitchen Theater, he handed me an opening night card with the inscription: “I can see that you have the talent and the true spirit for the theater. Think about it.”
I do. But for the longest time since, I have not obeyed his earlier admonition to “go do it!”
Many others have fine memories of Stephen and I can only hope there is a time for all of us, together, to share them.
– Franklin Crawford