Living Theater brings deceased alumni, faculty to life


Sidney Madden

Lex Tate performs in the Mt. Hope Roselawn Cemetary Walk as Tina Weedon Smith on Saturday, Oct. 21.

By Sidney Madden, Contributing writer

On an overcast October morning, a crowd of C-U locals and Illinois alumni anxiously waited in the Mt. Hope Cemetery for the First Annual Mt. Hope Roselawn Cemetery Walk to begin.

The walk told the stories of deceased Illinois faculty and staff who are buried in the cemetery.

This event was the brainchild of Ryan Ross, coordinator of history and traditions at the University of Illinois alumni association. Ross was inspired by years of attending the Evergreen Cemetery Walk in Bloomington, IL. 

Growing in popularity, cemetery walks have been taking place across the country, from Elgin, IL to New Orleans, LA.

Ross had been planning the Mt. Hope Roselawn Cemetery Walk for over a year. He began by picking the alumni.

Get The Daily Illini in your inbox!

  • Catch the latest on University of Illinois news, sports, and more. Delivered every weekday.
  • Stay up to date on all things Illini sports. Delivered every Monday.
This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.
Thank you for subscribing!

“When I started thinking about it, I started walking around the cemetery and making note of people whose names I recognized, and I got up to 170 and decided it was just madness, so I stopped,” Ross said. “We have it whittled down to seven characters at six locations.”

Two of these characters were football coach Bob Zuppke and athletic director George Huff. The other five alumni included semi-official “dean of women” Louisa Allen Gregory, “unofficial dean of African-American students” Albert Lee, president Edmund Janes James, his wife Anna Margarethe Lange and socialite Tina Weedon Smith.

Tour guides doubled as narrators, leading small groups through the cemetery and filling in the gaps of stories. Each alum gave an interactive monologue while dressed in the garb of their respective era, detailing their contributions to the University.

Football coach Bob Zuppke, played by University alumnus Joe Rank, was clad in cloth football pants and knee-high stockings as he recalled his glory days and national championships with the Fighting Illini.

Both he and athletic director George Huff, played by Mike Koon, spoke of the campaigning they did across the country to build Memorial Stadium.

When Ross narrowed down his alumni characters, it was important to have a diverse cast, he said. Louisa Allen Gregory, played by Susan Sheahan, created the domestic science program and made sure her students were in tip-top shape.

Gregory’s spirit was shown when she snapped at a bystander to tuck in his shirt. In contrast, the “unofficial dean of African-American students,” Albert Lee, played by Cedric Jones, had a more polite demeanor, evident when he bid the crowd “a good day.” Lee spoke of his efforts to provide support to black students in the highly segregated C-U area.

President Edmund Janes James, played by Phil Strang, and his wife Anna Margarethe Lange, played by Mary Welle, were discussing dinner plans when the tour group approached them.

They paused to let the group know their many contributions to the University. These included establishing research as part of the University’s core values and constructing several buildings around campus, such as the campus library at Altgeld Hall.

Tina Weedon Smith, portrayed by Lex Tate, stood at her grave as the tour group approached.

She said her name was “TI-nah,” not “TEE-nah,” before she launched into her love story with Captain Thomas J. Smith. Their love took them to C-U, where he was a successful lawyer and she was a patroness of two sororities. Their relationship was strong until her death in 1903. To honor her, Smith insisted on a building in honor of his wife: Tina Weedon Smith Memorial Hall.

Smith is not the only one with a building named after her. Huff Hall is named after George Huff, while Allen Hall is named after Louisa Allen Gregory. 

Events like the Mt. Hope Roselawn Cemetery Walk can remind current faculty and students of the people who helped establish the University.

Tate, also the author of “An Illini Place,” emphasized how honoring these historical figures instills appreciation.

“It is helpful, I think, for people to reflect on things that occurred before them. The world did not begin the day you stepped foot on this campus. This cemetery was here before campus was here,” Tate said. “I think if people hear stories, they’ll appreciate more what’s around them.”

The alumni association already has plans to continue the tradition next year with a completely new cast. Ross already has two alumni in mind for next year’s performance.

“There’s no end to the number of people we could portray,” Rank, former vice president of the alumni association, said. “It’ll be ten years before we exhaust characters.”

[email protected]