For many years, the theater arts were not part of the general curriculum at Weehawken High School. Kids didn’t have much of a chance to learn about the theater or perform in front of an audience. The school play was a part of the school’s history.
That was, until elementary school teacher Eileen Markwalter, a devout fan of the theater, decided that the students of Weehawken needed to have the introduction to the performing arts.
Starting about six years ago, Markwalter tirelessly pushed the Weehawken Board of Education and the Weehawken Township Council to allow her to direct and coordinate a school musical production.
“She constantly would say, ‘I hope you can understand the importance of having a school play,'” Superintendent of Schools Kevin McLellan said last week. “It was a passion of hers. It was extremely important to her. She was the catalyst to have the plays again.”
After receiving approval from the Board of Education and the necessary funding from a township committee called Weehawken Against Drugs and Alcohol, Markwalter got the ball rolling to bring theater arts to the students of Weehawken.
“She was the drama department,” Weehawken High School Principal Dr. Peter Olivieri said. “She pushed for years before we had anything. I didn’t know if we had enough talent to pull it off, but she convinced me that it could get done.”
In each of the last five years, the Weehawken High School play, which has developed into a full-fledged musical production, has played to a sold-out, standing room only audience.
“She saw the crowds of people come in to the auditorium just minutes before the performance, and her face was gleaming,” McLellan said. “She had stars in her eyes.”
Last Monday, the Weehawken High School community and especially the theater department lost its catalyst when Markwalter succumbed to breast cancer at the age of 53, after valiantly battling the disease for more than a year. Her colleagues mourned her loss last week, knowing full well that she was an irreplaceable part of the Weehawken educational community.
“Eileen was a very true and valued member of the community who constantly worked hard for her students,” Weehawken Mayor Richard Turner said. “She persistently came to me and prodded me to provide the money for the school musical productions. Under her guidance, the plays became a resounding success.”
“I don’t know if we ever will be able to replace her,” Olivieri said. “She was a kind, giving personality, one of the most kind and gentlest people I’ve ever known.”
Markwalter spent 16 years in the Weehawken school system, first working as a third and fourth grade teacher, then teaching seventh grade English and history until her death. After getting permission from the Board of Education to produce a school play, she was able to direct such productions as “Grease,” “Damn Yankees,” “Annie” and was directing “Little Shop of Horrors” last year, when she was stricken ill and could not continue. The students all dedicated their performance last year to her.
Over the rainbow
Markwalter was determined to make it back for another play and actually selected “The Wizard of Oz,” to be produced in the spring.
“Doing ‘The Wizard of Oz’ is a tremendous undertaking,” said Steve Spinosa, the school’s music director who worked closely with Markwalter in all of the shows. “With the extensive scenery and a large cast. I mean, you need at least 30 munchkins to pull it off. But Eileen was definitely ready to do this, even with her illness. She amazed me. I didn’t know if we were ready to do it, but she was definitely determined to do it.”
Spinosa said he will definitely miss Markwalter’s spirit.
“She was truly a special lady,” Spinosa said. “She was the one who gave us all the direction. More or less, she captained the ship. The biggest thing we’re going to miss is her ability to see the talent in the students and be able to bring it out of them. She saw their inner talents, when a lot of people would have never thought that way. It was one thing to direct a show. It’s another to start one from the beginning. But she envisioned that it could be done. I tell you, she was quite a lady.”
Spinosa was impressed with the way that Markwalter worked with the students.
“One of her biggest gifts was the way she gave the students confidence,” Spinosa said. “She instilled confidence in people that you never would have thought could be on stage. The confidence that she had that this program could truly work. And the popularity that the program brought to the community, having a full house every time the show was done. It was staggering. We’re all going to miss her guidance.”
McLellan recognized Markwalter’s fine talents as a teacher and as a director.
“Eileen was a perfect example of someone who was born to the profession,” McLellan said. “She was fortunate to see one of her passions come to fruition and was able to couple that as the foundation for her career. As an educator, I will always remember the rapport she had with her students and the loyalty that she commanded from her students. There was so much mutual respect between the teacher and the students. Eileen was a perfect example of that.”
Olivieri said that Markwalter’s courage was impeccable.
“She didn’t want anyone to feel sorry for her,” Olivieri said. “She was firmly convinced that she could beat it. We’ll all miss her a great deal.”
McLellan said that the theater program will live on.
“When she got sick, she made me promise her that the program will continue,” McLellan said. “And as long as I’m superintendent, it will.”