In Memoriam: Peter Sargent, Dean Emeritus Webster University

by Stage Directions

Peter Sargent, the founding dean of the Webster University Leigh Gerdine College of Fine Arts, died on the afternoon of November 27, 2019. He was 82 years old. Sargent was a mentor to many in our industry and was a local and national leader in the performing arts. In this video from Webster University, Sargent reflected on the Conservatory's history during its 50th anniversary season:

Among Sargent’s many accomplishments were the founding of The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, as well as his professional contributions to the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, The Municipal Theatre Association of St. Louis (The Muny), and the Shakespeare Festival St. Louis to name just a few.

“Peter Sargent dedicated his life and career to the arts. A consummate arts educator, he built the foundation for Webster University’s signature and impact as a premier university for the arts through the quality of the academic programs and unparalleled partnerships with professional companies in the region. All of us who were touched by his generosity as a friend and mentor know how he lifted others up in ways that made all of us better,” said Webster University Chancellor Elizabeth (Beth) J. Stroble. “Words at this time cannot express the tremendous sorrow that I feel for the loss of this treasured friend and colleague.”

Sargent, affectionately labeled “the man in plaid” by his staff and students for his love of plaid jackets, earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the Carnegie Institute of Technology in 1959 and a Master of Fine Arts from Yale University in 1963.
Peter Sargent, The Man in Plaid

He was hired by Webster University in 1966 to head the then-new lighting and design stage management program, which was created for the then-brand-new Webster University Loretto-Hilton Center. That year, he helped found the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. In 1967, he founded Webster University’s Conservatory of Theatre Arts.

He was appointed the chair of the Fine Arts Department in 1969 and was promoted to be the first dean for the Leigh Gerdine College of Fine Arts in 1995, a college created in 1990 and named after a former president of Webster University. Today, the Leigh Gerdine College of Fine Arts has more than 500 undergraduate students studying majors in the visual arts, dance, music, and theatre.

“Peter left a lasting impact on the Leigh Gerdine College of Fine Arts, on Webster University, on the St. Louis arts community, and on the national landscape of fine arts. The thousands of his graduates continue to be major influencers throughout the world of art. Peter left a legacy, a precious gift we must preserve, nurture, and grow,” said Webster University President Julian Schuster. “He defined art at Webster: flamboyant yet very modest, jovial, yet perceptive and thoughtful, and most importantly kind and warm – a friend indeed. His loss is real and immeasurable, but he will always be a part of our community.”

In this video from Webster University, alumni and faculty reflected on Sargent's impact during the Conservatory's 50th anniversary season

Sargent served as dean until earlier this year, when he stepped down to resume his role as a faculty member in the lighting and design stage management program.

“His passing and the impact of his contributions are felt beyond the borders of Webster,” said current Leigh Gerdine College of Fine Arts Dean Paul Steger. “Our world is ‘contracted in one brow of woe.’"

Despite his many duties, he still maintained his position as the resident lighting designer for the Repertory Theatre. He also served the same role for the Hope Summer Repertory Theatre in Holland, MI. In addition, he would often lend a hand to the stage lighting crew at The Muny.

Sargent has belonged to many organizations and received numerous honors for his contribution to the arts and arts education. Sargent advised and counseled numerous theaters over the years, including The Playhouse in the Park in Cincinnati, Hope Summer Repertory Theatre, The Goodspeed Opera House, and The Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival. He served as the first production manager and lighting director of The Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, and he continued to contribute to the institution for many years. He was a member of the College of Fellows of American Theatre and The National Theatre Conference.

He was a recipient of a Special Citation for Education from the United States Institute for Theatre Technology (USITT). Additionally, he was a member of the Educational Theatre Association Hall of Fame and a recipient of the President’s Award from that same organization; he received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Arts and Education Council of Greater St. Louis; received the Thomas Di Gaetani Award for leadership in theatre technology from the United States Institute for Theatre Technology (USITT); and was recognized with the Achievement in the Arts Award from the Missouri Arts Council.

Sargent and Webster University’s Stage Management program were honored at an awards ceremony held by the Stage Managers’ Association (SMA) in New York City on Sept. 17, 2018. The event honored recipients of the Del Hughes Lifetime Achievement in the Art of Stage Management Award, as well as a special award recognizing Sargent and this specialized Conservatory program.

Just this year, Sargent and Dottie Marshall Englis, chair of the Webster University Conservatory of Theatre Arts, were named the region's favorite lighting and costume designers, respectively, in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch's annual The Go! List of Arts.

Sargent was Secretary for the Board of Directors of the Arts and Education Council; a member of the boards for The Shakespeare Festival St. Louis, The Tennessee Williams Festival of St. Louis, Dance St. Louis and The Insight Theatre. He was the founder of the National Unified Auditions and coordinated the College Audition Program for the International Thespian Festival.

Among his proudest achievements, Sargent often spoke of the on-going success of the National Unified Auditions, which allows students to audition for multiple undergraduate theater programs at once; the partnerships fostered between Webster and The Muny, the Shakespeare Festival St. Louis, and the board of the Arts and Education Council. Among his proudest productions that he worked on were You Can’t Take it With You, Sweeney Todd, The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?, A Little Night Music, and Company.

Sargent’s daughter Megan Case announced Sargent’s passing on Facebook earlier Wednesday. “It is with great sadness that I share the news of the passing of My Main Man in Plaid. Peter left us peacefully this afternoon with my mom, Amy and me by his side. A memorial service will be planned for a later date and I will be sure to keep you all posted.”

Webster University is in contact with the family and is working with them to also schedule an on-campus memorial service. Sargent was 82 years old. He is survived by his wife of 54 years Alice, his daughters Amy and Megan, and two grandchildren.