Vince Niehaus didn’t start out his career expecting ever to be involved in theater. His plan was to be a secondary education teacher.
But like many high school teachers, Niehaus, in his first job as an English instructor at a small rural school in Keytesville, was assigned additional duties — among them, directing the annual senior class play.
“That was my first exposure to theater,” Niehaus told The Missourian. “It took some bumps and runs to get it started.
“There were 30 kids in the senior class, and they all wanted to be in (the play), so I found (one) with 30 roles.”
It was “Grandma’s Best Years.”
Ironically, that set the stage for his future in education. It’s what led him to Washington High School, where he helped establish the Washington Theatre Guild, and later to East Central College, where he began in a position that was created specifically with his talent for set design in mind.
“He’s an outstanding scenic artist,” said John Anglin, who was the head of ECC’s theater department when Niehaus was hired there in 1984.
“He brought a very unique design perspective to our theater productions.”
Today, as Niehaus prepares to retire from East Central College and his position as chair of the Fine Arts Department, he’s closing the curtain on a successful and satisfying career.
Just last week, Niehaus was honored in Jefferson City with the Missouri Community College Association’s Governor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching, given to the top community college teachers in the state each year. He previously received the MCCA Senior Award and the Emerson Award for Excellence in Teaching, which he was nominated for by fellow faculty members.
This weekend, ECC’s production of “Bye Bye Birdie” will be Niehaus’ last show as set designer at the college. Interestingly enough, “Bye Bye Birdie” was the first show Niehaus put on when he arrived at WHS in the late ’70s.
Though it is the same play, the two couldn’t be more different, Niehaus remarked.
From Marines to Education to Theater
Niehaus grew up in Glendale and, in the late ’60s, before he could be drafted into service, opted to enlist in the U.S. Marine Corps.
“I wanted to turn the page,” said Niehaus, explaining he felt better making a decision and moving forward rather than living with the uncertainty of not knowing when his number would come up in the draft.
He served three years, from 1968 to 1971, as a captain’s orderly, commanding officer, aboard the flagship of the seventh fleet. He hit all ports in Southeast Asia, including Vietnam.
After he was honorably discharged, Niehaus enrolled in classes at St. Louis Community College-Florissant Valley, where he began taking classes in commercial art. There he met his future wife, Jeanne, in a figure drawing class.
Niehaus earned an Associate of Arts degree in general studies and moved on to the University of Missouri-St. Louis to complete a bachelor’s degree. Initially he began studying business, but when he realized that didn’t suit him, he changed his major to English and secondary education.
When it came time to look for a job, Niehaus went to the placement office on campus, where he learned that the high school in Keytesville, then a town of some 500 people, was looking to hire an English teacher.
It was just the kind of job he was hoping to find.
“I wanted to start out in a rural area . . . I wanted to get out, because I felt I hadn’t really yet,” recalled Niehaus.
The school was a high school, middle school and elementary school in one, with kindergarten through 12th grade under one roof.
“It had a one-room schoolhouse feel to it,” said Niehaus, “with the older ones (students) helping take care of the younger ones.”
In accepting the job as English teacher, Niehaus also took on several other roles as well — a senior class sponsor, yearbook moderator and, as mentioned before, director of the senior class play, which was held each year as a fund-raiser for a senior class trip.
“The whole town came to watch,” Niehaus recalled, with a smile.
That first experience working in theater taught Niehaus a lot — including the value of “huddling everyone up” and giving inspirational speeches (something he learned from the school’s basketball coach, who was the senior class’s other sponsor) and that the students wanted to hear constructive criticism.
“If you don’t have notes for them (about what they can work on) they’re disappointed,” said Niehaus.
He was only at the small-town school for a couple of years, but he made an impression. A couple of years ago, his wife, Jeanne noted, he was invited to attend a class reunion there.
Move to Washington
The Niehauses moved to Washington in August 1978. Jeanne was pregnant, and they wanted to move closer to home, but stay in a more rural community. An opening at Washington High School for an English teacher and theater director was perfect.
After a couple of years on the job, Niehaus teamed up with a fellow English teacher, Bob Vandeknocke, to establish the WHS Theatre Guild, which became a club of sorts for students who loved theater. The rules of the group were based on guilds in England.
“Freshmen were apprentices,” Niehaus explained. “They put in 150 hours. To get up to journeyman, they had to work their way up to 300 hours. Then to get to guild master, they had to take on a project and teach or lead the apprentices and journeymen.”
The group also took field trip-like excursions into high schools into St. Louis area to watch their productions, staying afterward to talk to the cast and crew about their shows.
“We also petitioned the school to get the (theater) students letters like they have in sports,” said Niehaus, who noted even the speech team received letters for their work.
The Theatre Guild students were always dedicated, he said. There was one time when they were up at school working on painting a set until 3 a.m.
While he was working at WHS, Niehaus enrolled at Lindenwood University to earn a master’s degree in set design. There wasn’t an actual program for it, so the university ended up customizing a degree for him.
He selected Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” and then had to create the set design, complete with a verbal explanation and package of information. He also had to give a written and oral thesis.
“I had to do the model and technical drawings with explanations and link up with a director,” recalled Niehaus.
It was a two-year process which he completed in 1984.
Recruited to ECC
Anglin, whose oldest son was a students at WHS and involved in theater, knew of Niehaus’ quality of work and was interested in having him join the staff at ECC.
The problem was that the college wasn’t large enough yet to bring on another full-time instructor, Anglin said. At the same time, they didn’t want Niehaus to be lured away from the area by another offer.
“So we worked it out with Dean Boyd Eversole to bring him on,” said Anglin. “We knew the school would continue to grow and then we’d need him.”
“At first they paid me as an adjunct professor,” Niehaus recalled. “I would build and design sets and teach about 15 hours of communications.”
In time he also began directing one play a year and organized the children’s theater touring group, where ECC students would take a show on tour to perform at area grade schools.
That was difficult work, he admits.
“Touring is different than being on stage, because the pace is faster. . . . But it was an opportunity. I pulled it on myself,” he admitted.
He loved the work that much.
“Theater is very much at the heart of it.”
When Anglin retired and Niehaus moved into the role as chair of the fine arts department, he took on the responsibility of advancing the theater program to the next season, Jean McCann, vice president of instruction, noted in a tribute to him that she wrote for the program on “Proof,” Niehaus’ final directorial show at ECC last fall.
“(He) quietly searched, hired, mentored, led, challenged, encouraged, and developed a new cadre of faculty,” she wrote.
“No one could have moved the department forward better than Vince.
“For many years Vince has been an important part of the college family and his departure will leave a gap, not just in the theater, but in our hearts,” McMann wrote. “His contributions to the college are far too numerous to list, but have left their mark for the students, the faculty and all of his ECC family.”
Niehaus too is proud of the accomplishments the fine arts department has made during his tenure, which includes beginning the process for accreditation by the National Association of Schools of Theatre, although he’s quick to say he doesn’t deserve the credit.
“It’s part of a Tom Sawyer-style management — you get them to find something they love to do and you cut them loose to do it,” said Niehaus, noting it’s a style born out of his Marine Corps training.
“You have a goal and ways to reach that goal,” he commented. “It’s discipline and dedication to driving yourself to a point where you complete the task.”
Looking back on his 28 years at ECC and the dozens of shows he’s directed and created sets for, Niehaus said the one that stands out above the rest is “Macbeth,” which he put on in the early ’90s using the set design he had created for his master’s thesis at Lindenwood.
‘Listen to the Wind Blow’
As the end of the semester draws closer and Niehaus looks ahead to retirement, he isn’t quite sure what he’ll do with all of his extra time just yet.
“The first day of vacation, I will sit on my deck with my wife and listen to the wind blow,” he said. “Then I may get on my Harley and take a ride.”
He’s looking forward to spending more time with his grandchildren, and will likely look for another career path to pursue.
“I’m going to miss the students the most,” Niehaus remarked. “I’m not sure how I’m going to handle that.
“It’s really an attachment.”