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I lost one of my biggest mentors in life this week. Dennis Gilmore was one of my theater and speech teachers at Trinity Valley Community College in Athens.

I met Dennis during my years at TVCC, where I went on a drama and speech scholarships from 1995-1997.

I’m ashamed to say, the last time I spoke to Dennis was through Facebook Messenger in 2016 when I was trying to get a reunion of TVCC drama students and staff together.

Dennis retired to the Palm Springs area of California and wasn’t going to be able to make it.

During that conversation I told him, “You taught me so many things, you’ll always be one of my favorite people.”

It was the truth. For me, and many others, Dennis was wit, wisdom and just what we needed at a critical time in our lives. In the short time I knew him, he had a profound impact on my life.

In the beginning, I was very intimidated by Dennis. His steely blue eye and set jaw gave little away about his true kind nature.

Dennis taught many classes, but the one I remember most was a stage construction class.

I knew nothing about measuring, painting or power tools, and did my best to get out of anything that would get me dirty. But you couldn’t play the “girl” card with Dennis. In his class everyone pitched in and did their part. With Dennis, everyone found out what their strengths and weakness were and how to adjust accordingly.

While I believe he wholeheartedly cared about all his students and theater kids, he had his favorites. I don’t believe I was one of them, but I wanted to be. I often sought him out for deep conversations, witty banter and advice. I don’t recall Dennis ever talking down to me. Despite our age difference, he always spoke to me, and really whoever he was working with, as an equal. He not only listened, he heard everything you said, took it in and then allowed you through conversation to work out what you should do, with thoughtful response or sound advise.

He also challenged us to work hard; to think bigger, broader, deeper; and to live large - that you were your biggest obstacle in obtaining your dreams.

To say the least, Dennis was good-natured, even when extremely put out by college student antics.

He handed out sarcastic, and sometimes deeply biting, remarks as a way to lighten a lecture or get his point across. You knew when Dennis was mad or disappointed without him blowing up or actually saying the words. Not that he wouldn’t loose his temper from time to time. Teens with large egos and little work ethic could set him off like no other.

Dennis was also the Directer of the Athens Little Theater, now known as the Henderson County Performing Arts Center.

ALT was a second home for many members in the community. A safe space for people, especially teens and young adults, to gather and develop as actors and individuals. Through the college, students would do projects at ALT. I spent a lot of down time hanging out in Dennis’ ALT office, petting the company cat, roaming the costume closets and finding myself on its stage.

There was always a lot of noise, movements and high energy at ALT. For many adults, that many kids and teens hanging out might mean chaos. Not for Dennis. He was all business and we liked it. He motivated us with equal parts expectations and praise for a job well done.

Every production at ALT was done with class and professionalism; big stage production, with intricate sets, elaborate costumes and larger-than-life performances.

Through my two years at TVCC, Dennis was a my council, my support system and my cheer section. Those two years created a foundation of who I am now.

I’d like to think that I was uniquely special to him in some way, but everyone that worked with Dennis received the same benefits. We all held our own special place in his heart. He loved us all.

Since college, I have directed plays, written skits and worked with many teens on public speaking, stage presence and performance preparations. I’ve been in minor movie and television productions and have worked in the field of media for over 15 years. All of which I never shared with Dennis. I wish I had, because I know he would have been proud of me.

Today, as I mourn this great loss to not only my life, but to the thousands of kids he inspired through the years, I’m angry at myself for not doing a better job of keeping in touch with someone who meant so much to me.

I let far less important things take up the time that I should have been using to reach out. Now, it’s too late. But Dennis wouldn’t be upset. He would tell me “Just do better.”

Dennis, I will always remember you. My life is far better because of you. Thank you for everything. I promise to do better.

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