Former California State University, Northridge theater professor Linda de Vries recently received the Kennedy Center/Stephen Sondheim Inspirational Teacher Award after being nominated by her former student Gabriel Ortiz.
De Vries worked in CSUN’s Department of Theatre for 27 years, teaching classes and working on the student productions.
“I became a teacher because I was taught,” said de Vries. “I learned that to teach was to open doors, to challenge and to transform. I could imagine no greater vocation.”
CSUN theater professor Peter Grego hailed de Vries as a mentor.
“Linda was all about the work, and when students or faculty could get it stronger, she was there to help,” said Grego, de Vries former office mate. “Although you’d think we couldn’t get closer than sharing an office together, she also worked as vocal/speech/dialect coach on most of the productions I directed for 18 years. But I think the strongest work we shouldered was coaching students for their prospective graduate school auditions. Linda was unflagging in her devotion and the commitment she made to each student. How she managed to drive after rehearsals ended at CSUN at 10 p.m. to her home in Whittier still amazes me.”
It was that passion to teach, encourage and push people to do their best that changed Gabriel Ortiz’s life.
“I don’t remember what she said or how she convinced me to stay, but I do remember this woman got to me,” said Ortiz, who nominated de Vries for the accolade.
De Vries recalled having Ortiz in her classes for six semesters, directing him in multiple shows and coaching him in about six more.
Ortiz said that in his time with her, “she reached across the lines of socioeconomics, race, class, gender and privilege to show she cared and remind me that I was somebody.”
De Vries is one of only six educators nationwide to receive the award, which included a $10,000 grant.
“The grant is awarded based on the nomination letter from the student. Thus, I feel this award was as much Gabe’s as mine,” said de Vries.
She gave half of the $10,000 to Ortiz, which he used in three key ways: a life-saving operation for his family dog, paying off the credit card debt of his first writing teacher who is dying of cancer and to buy books for the at-risk kids in the middle school where he is associate principal. De Vries donated the other half other of the grant to the ongoing mission of the chorus in which she sings and for which she is chair of the board of directors.
“I believe an award such as this should be paid forward,” she said. “When I wrote to Stephen Sondheim in thanks, explaining how the money had been used, he wrote back, ‘Your letter moved me so much I can hardly reply.’ He later forwarded the letter to the CEO of Music Theatre International, the organization that provides the money for the award.
“My goal with this award, as with all else I do or that happily comes my way, is to support arts and education and those who dream of these opportunities for all of our citizens,” said de Vries.
“I would hope this award would also add to the validatity the professors at CSUN,” she said. The devotion and care taken in teaching those often first-generation students is incredibly rewarding for students, professors and society. I would hope it would encourage all professors to a renewed commitment to their students and that it brings emphasis, in particular, to the importance of arts programs, both at the University level and K-12.”
The Kennedy Center/Stephen Sondheim Inspirational Teacher Awards publicly recognize specific teachers by spotlighting their extraordinary impact on the lives of students. The awards celebrate the teaching profession, the important role of teachers in society and seek to inspire others to pursue this profession. These former students’ stories exemplify the power one teacher has to inspire others and transform lives.