Drama professor Steffensen dies at 69

by Carl Burnett | 10/29/99 5:00am

Author, playwright, Rhodes scholar, respected professor and former chair of the drama department James L. Steffensen Jr. died Wednesday of complications from esophageal cancer, which he had battled for five months. He was 69.

The Dartmouth flag flew at half-staff yesterday in memory of Steffensen, who is remembered by students and colleagues alike as an enthusiastic and passionate scholar of English drama.

English Professor Peter Saccio, Steffensen's companion of 38 years, praised Steffensen's role in unifying the drama department and overseeing the creation of the film studies major.

"He served Dartmouth very well and invented programs, always thinking of ways in which to benefit students," he said.

Lewis Crickard, director of the Hopkins Center, said Steffensen had "an uncanny ability as an editor and a keen eye for detail." He used that ability to implement several important academic programs at Dartmouth, including the drama Foreign Study Program in London.

Having studied extensively at Oxford University, Steffensen "had a lifelong interest in the theater of England, and he shared it with gusto," said Crickard.

Steffensen's plans for improving Dartmouth and the drama department were always "meticulously laid out," Crickard said. "The word 'mentor' is something he embodied... it's a terrific loss."

Steffensen came to Dartmouth in 1980 and served as chair of the drama department from 1981 to 1984 and from 1987 to 1990. During his time as chair, he guided the unification of the drama department in the Hopkins Center.

He was diagnosed with cancer in June, and he underwent chemotherapy to treat the disease until October. He had been scheduled to teach Drama 18 (Modern Drama) this fall, but decided to take sick leave for the term in order to undergo treatment.

Steffensen was eager to return to the classroom during Winter term, but he experienced an unexpected onset of pneumonia and was admitted to Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center on Oct. 20, where he died seven days later at 5:45 p.m.

Brett Perala '00, a drama major, never had Steffensen as a professor but knew him well outside the classroom, having experienced his dialect coaching in the play "The Importance of Being Earnest."

Perala said Steffensen was always interested in "seeing students reach their full potential," often taking many hours of his own time to help actors in Dartmouth productions perfect their characters.

Steffensen's death is "definitely a huge loss for the drama department," Perala said, adding that Steffensen was "always a main contributor" to Dartmouth productions, which Perala said the professor always attended.

In a BlitzMail message yesterday, Keegan Checkett '01, a drama major, wrote of the strong impression Steffensen made on him. "I knew nothing about the subject before I took his class and he opened my eyes to the magic of theatre. He was pure magic himself," Checkett wrote.

Steffensen grew up in Santa Ana, Calif., and earned a B.A. from Pomona College in 1952. In the same year, he earned a Rhodes Scholarship to study at Merton College, Oxford.

Upon his return to the United States, he studied for two years at Yale University, where he met Saccio.

In addition, Steffensen published several scholarly works, including a complete edition of The Dramatic Works of George Lillo, an 18th-century English playwright.

Steffensen's play, "The Prior Recollection," was produced off-off-Broadway in 1964. He also taught English at Wesleyan University before arriving in Hanover.

At Dartmouth, Steffensen and Saccio were one of the first openly gay couples living together on campus, and they spoke freely about their experiences in coming to terms with their sexual identities and their relationship.

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