She was a small woman, barely over 5 feet tall, but friends and family remember longtime Sumter Little Theatre director Katie Damron as having lived a giant life. She died on Wednesday, just four days before her 89th birthday - today.
A native of Pikeville, Kentucky, Damron moved to Sumter with her late husband, Ed, in 1953, having purchased WSSC radio, of which she was vice president through the 1970s. She also held several positions with local government and civic organizations, including the League of Women Voters and the Junior Welfare League. It is through SLT that Damron perhaps made her greatest impact on the community, directing more than 100 plays and changing scores of lives for the better. She was the primary force in the 1986 reestablishment of SLT after several years without a theater in Sumter. SLT named the theater The Katie Damron Stage, and she served as executive director until her retirement in 2009. She was also the first female director of the S.C. Theater Association and a board member of the Southeastern Theater Conference.
This week, her former pupils in the SLT Youth Theatre, which she founded with her friend, the late Jan Taylor, and those she worked with primarily as adults have been remembering Damron with love and gratitude. She leaves a broad legacy through her three children, their families and her students.
Damron has three children, all of them involved in the arts. Her son, Ed, lives in Malmo, Sweden, with his wife, son and daughter. He is a professional actor and writer who, with his wife, Vidisha Mallik, owns Expressteatern Theatre. Her daughters are Pam Knight, a singer, musician and retired data analyst in Keen, New Hampshire, and Carla Damron, an accomplished novelist, retired clinical social worker and executive director of the S.C. chapter of the National Association of Social Workers in Columbia.
Knight said what stands out for her about her mother "was her courage. It took courage to leave her friends and family in the mountains of eastern Kentucky to move to Sumter with her young family to help manage a radio station. It took courage to stand up for her convictions and her commitment to the causes of civil rights and justice in an era when those views were not always welcome. She was proud that she was once called a Communist because she spoke out against the John Birch Society in the 1960s. And it took real courage to start directing plays and develop a youth theatre program that had a profound effect on so many lives. I've been really touched by the tributes from her former students. I only wish I had a fraction of the courage that Katie had."
Her son, Ed, agreed.
"My mother had a full life," he said. "She worked very hard for that which was important to her: equal rights and the arts. It wasn't easy pursuing those goals in the South. If you want an apple, I suppose you have to shake the tree sometimes. And boy, did Katie shake the tree. And those apples fell and grew into beautiful trees all over the world."
Carla Damron said she looks more and more like her mother, prompting people in Sumter and elsewhere to remark, "You must be Katie's daughter."
"It's happened at the Statehouse when I'm advocating legislators to support a health care bill (that they have no intention of passing)," she said. "It's happened in random bookstores, theaters, etc. Mom had a way of making an impression.
"I inherited something else from her, too. Those who know Mom know she had a temper. You could not win an argument with her, particularly related to something she was passionate about (the arts, homelessness, health care. Donald Trump.) I've come to recognize I have some of her fire in me, and it's proved useful in my advocacy work. I call it "channeling my inner Katie," and I'm told it makes me somewhat formidable.
"For me, the most important thing about Mom was how she cared about the vulnerable among us. She passed this passion on to each of her children - and not just those of us related by birth. She created a loving, creative, passionate family, and I am privileged to be a part of it."
Laura Knight said of her grandmother, "If you ever thought Katie Damron never spoke her mind, then you'd be very mistaken. It was her leadership and love that helped me become the woman I am today. She was a wonderful grandmother, and she will be greatly missed."
The current executive director of Sumter Little Theatre, Eric Bultman, is one of the "children" not related by birth. He credits Damron for his having become an actor and director.
Bultman produced and organized a 2014 tribute to her, at which he recalled Katie instilling a love for theater in him at a very young age. When one of his young student actors exuberantly expressed her love for SLT after a performance of "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," he said, "I thought about the fact that we're here, and the reason we're here is Katie."
He then made a gesture that included the entire theater wing of the Sumter County Cultural Center.
"She got all of this for us through a lot of persistence and stubbornness," he said. "If we are here to perpetuate it and to keep it alive and keep it going, then we need to recognize her for what she's done. She was the one that made me fall in love with Sumter Little Theatre, so immediately the legacy was right there. I played a dwarf in 'The Hobbit' when I was about 11, and I've been acting ever since."
Bultman visited Damron in the hospital last week.
"I gave Katie a hug and a kiss on her forehead," he said. "She looked at me and said, 'Please shave off that beard. I mean it, Eric. It makes you look old.' I shaved it off that night. I did everything Katie told me to do. She was my director."
With Ms. Damron's passing, actor and director Traci Quinn said, "The Sumter Little Theatre is dark today because its brightest light is gone. The lessons she taught us, however, live on in each of us. She was a force of nature. A brilliant and demanding director a passionate teacher, a friend and mentor. I loved her, and I was smart enough to fear her, too.
"She cheated at Scrabble, gloated when she won at Shanghai. She had strong opinions and delighted in sharing them, whether you wanted her to or not. She was fierce, both in love and in anger. She forced her actors to pull from deep within, to take chances, to be brave and genuine and true. She rooted out falseness and encouraged intention. She abhorred laziness, in thought and actions.
"She gave us everything she had in every show - a lesson I am still trying to put into practice. She was loved by so many."
Heather Osborne Turner said she is one of many students "who was transformed by Katie Damron. The fire that she lit inside of me has been burning since the day I met her. She lifted me high and gave my feet wings, which I so desperately needed growing up. She laughed with me, argued with me, advocated for me and hugged me in times of tears and joy. She was a powerful straight shooter. You never had to wonder what she thought. She'd tell you, whether you wanted to hear it or not. She was an incredible teacher. She didn't take less than all you had to give, every ounce until there was nothing left. I loved her. I admired her. I feared her. she would make me face things and deal with things that weren't always so easy to tackle. I miss her. Thank you, Katie. you always made me feel special: 'Light it up, Heather.'
"Now it's your turn. Light it up, Ms. Damron. I will love you forever."
Actor Braden Bunch praised Ms. Damron as "the most important person to the promotion of the performing arts for the Sumter community ever. if you are from Sumter and have ever acted, danced, sung or played a musical instrument in front of a crowd or have witnessed anyone from Sumter doing any of these things in the past 60 years or so, Katie Damron played at least a small part in making that performance a possibility, whether you knew it or not. Her legacy will be felt for years to come, and our community is better for it."
Michael Duffy, a longtime actor and director at SLT, added, "For those of us who had the great good fortune to fall under her influence, she cast a light and a shadow that will stay with us forever. Her lessons were at once a subtle dance and a relentless battle. She taught us the most fundamental of lessons: that the magic of a life well-lived is focus. All else is hubris. She lived an epic life. And because of that, no one walked away unchanged."
Actor Christy Smith agreed. "Katie Damron changed lives. She certainly changed mine. I met her when I was cast as Annie at the age of 10. She pushed me then to get out of my comfort zone. She gave me the gift of 'yes' - the will to take on a challenge even when it scared me.
"As the years passed I came to love her rare blend of candor and compassion. I could always count on her to tell me what she thought - unabridged. But I could also count on her to listen seriously to all of my small worries. She took me to see shows my family couldn't afford, shared her peanut butter crackers with me and was kind in countless small but important ways. She was smart, brave, creative and generous - a fierce advocate for the arts and all they can do to strengthen a community. At age 10 I wanted to grow up to be like her. I still do."
Longtime family friend Blanding Jones called Damron "a wonderful friend, advocate and pillar of the arts community. she was provocative, brave, controversial, perfectionist, honest, inclusive and persistent. The greatest thing that I admire about Katie was that she shared the love of theatre and the arts with many an impressionable youth of Sumter, providing a proactive channel for self-expression and personal development."
Carmela Bryan, retired director of Sumter Cultural Commission, SLT actor and director: "She showed me how to have courage in my choices, dared me not to waste any talents I have, and I am forever grateful to her. She was my teacher, in theater and in life."
Former Sumter resident and SLT actor Marc van Bulck, now pastor at Seville (Ohio) Presbyterian Church, said, "My life would not be what it is today if it weren't for Katie. I was a horribly shy young person in early adolescence with pretty pitiful social skills. My impulse was always to hide, to retreat into myself and into my solitude, but I couldn't hide from Katie.
" She used the arts to push me out of that comfort zone. She pulled me out of my shell and pushed me onto the stage, kicking and screaming, and it drew something out of me that I never in my wildest dreams imagined I could have: confidence.
"Katie Damron gave me the gift of my voice. I would never in a million years have been able to find the courage to go into the ministry without that gift, and I'll never be able to fully, truly thank her for that. God knows I tried, but Katie always fussed at me when I did.
"'I didn't do it,' she said, "'the arts did it, and I believe that the arts still do it.' Amen, Katie. That said, we still had one hell of a teacher. We love you. We all love you. Well done, good and faithful servant. Well done."