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Celebration honors an Austin theatre legend

The curtain comes down for the last time for Jerry Girton on Tuesday evening, Aug. 16, 2011. The occasion is the special Night Under the Stars celebration featuring the smash off-Broadway hit "Forbidden Broadway."

This is the 14th alumni production at Riverland Community College and probably the last Girton will be directing. Many of his former students will be back to perform in this, his last production. However, don’t count him out. He will probably be back as an actor or behind the scene building sets or running the sound system or lights.

Girton is the product of a small town in southeastern Minnesota. Grand Meadow is a community of just less than 1,000 residents. His love of the theatre came from watching his brother and sister read lines for plays that they were involved in at school. Joan Sween, his high school theater director at the time, inspired him to continue with theater and enroll in college.

He did not have far to look as he chose to continue at Austin Community College. Frank Bridges was his theater director and teacher. How unusual that 20 years later he returned to Austin Community College to replace his mentor, Frank Bridges, who was retiring.

His educational progression followed closely to many who left small towns in America to continue their education. He enrolled at the area community college for two years, followed by a bachelor’s degree at Southwest State University in Marshall. He completed his graduate degree at Mankato State University, having graduated with a master’s of fine arts.


His first teaching position was at Walnut Grove, the home of Laura Ingalls Wilder. After that Girton moved on to St. James, where he spent 13 years teaching speech and directing the local high school theater productions.

Upon learning that Frank Bridges was retiring from Austin Community College he made the leap to the community college. He spent the next 22 years teaching and directing theater productions at the college. He was asked: What part of college teaching or theatre directing do you like best? With a smile, Jerry indicated that he likes and loves both. Both experiences are about teaching and learning. He did mention that directing plays is like always starting over.

He really can’t decide which play was the best, for he directed more than 70 productions during those 22 years. They all had their special moments in time and each was different. Many of his students went on to be successful in various walks of life, including "America’s Got Talent," the Chanhassen Theatre, and cruise ships.

One former student who was asked to rate Jerry as a teacher on RateMyProfessor.com said, "I love Jerry! I had him for many classes and he is honestly one of the best teachers at RCC. Get to know him, he is a great guy. Audition for plays. He is probably the best director at any community college in the nation. Seriously, he’s great. Just go to class and put forth some effort and you will be fine."

If you were to ask Jerry what challenge he would like to tackle next, he would respond that over the last 38 years he has devoted his weekends, evenings and weekdays to living and breathing teaching and directing. It is time for an opportunity to rest, look around and see what passion in life is next.

If you want to say goodbye to Jerry why not attend the Night Under the Stars Celebration on Tuesday, Aug. 16, at 7 p.m. at Frank Bridges Theatre on the campus of Riverland Community College? The Celebration following the play will be under the large white tent.

The theatre production that evening is "Forbidden Broadway." Tickets can be reserved and purchased by calling the box office at (507) 433-0595 and indicate that you would like to attend the reception following the play.

Proceeds from the evening will go to theatre scholarships at the college, and you will have an opportunity to say good-bye to a community treasure. Endings are always sad, but this is a good ending.

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