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Our Rich History: Dr. Ron Mielech, its ‘heart and soul,’ and the Thomas More College Theatre program

By Dr. Raymond Hebert
Thomas More University

Part 26 of our series, “Retrospect and Vista II” Thomas More College/University 1971-2021

Dr. Ronald Albert Mielech (1931-2018) has always been respected and appreciated as the heart and soul of the Thomas More College Theatre Program. Many talented faculty and successful graduates were mentored by the man known affectionately as “Doc.”

Dr. Ron Mielech (Thomas More University Archives)

Ron Mielech was a Covington Latin graduate who attended Villa Madonna College as an English major from 1953-1957 and, in his own words, was captivated by theatre in a creative writing class in his senior year. In an interview for The Utopian, he told student reporter Philip Hahn that “he wrote a one-act play that got him accepted to Yale.” It is there that he completed a Masters in Playwriting and Dramatic Literature in 1960. Then, with an MFA in hand, he taught classes between 1960 and 1966 at both Villa Madonna College and Mount Saint Joseph (1964-1966) before accepting a full-time position in English at Villa Madonna College in 1966.

Meanwhile, he had begun his doctoral studies in Playwriting and Directing at The Ohio State University in 1963, completing his PhD in 1974, under the tutelage of the well-respected playwright and professor, Jerome Lawrence. One of the highlights of those years was having been selected by Lawrence, the author of Inherit the Wind, for his “Special Seminar in Playwriting” in the spring of 1969. It is interesting that the Utopian article noted, after mentioning Dr. Mielech’s areas of focus at Yale and Ohio State, that: “ironically, this great Director never really liked acting” (Philip A. Hahn, The Utopian, February 17, 1987).

Villa Players Program (Thomas More University Archives)

In a conversation with Dr. Mielech about his early years on the full-time faculty, which were with the English Department, he shared a disagreement that he had with then-President (Msgr.) John Murphy. Fr. Murphy had struggled with finding the right chairperson and was concerned that in the department, there were three talented nuns but they represented three different communities: Benedictine Sisters (Sister Loretto Marie Driscoll), Sisters of Divine Providence (Sister Agnes Margaret Humpert), and Sisters of Notre Dame (Sister M. Colleen Dillon). Fr. Murphy sensed some tension and did not want to play favorites, so he insisted that Dr. Mielech become the chair, a position that Ron Mielech found untenable since he was the youngest and newest faculty member in the department. It made for a difficult few years but Mielech, in his inimitable way, filled the job admirably. He seems to have used the situation in a positive way because not long afterwards, the Theatre Program was allowed to go in its own separate direction, which included a student theatre group called the “Villa Players.”

Sister M. Colleen Dillon, chair of the English Department. (Thomas More University Archives)

Although Mielech founded the drama department, “he modestly refused to accept the credit,” stated Hahn in his Utopian article. “He is proud to have been part of its formation, but he says ‘it’s been a group effort.’ We have built a quality program.” When asked about the program’s graduates, he listed “the Associate Director at the Playhouse in the Park, several Broadway actors, Off-Broadway actors, and of course Bill Schwarber” (Hahn article, Utopian, 2/17/1987). That was in 1987 so many others could be added for the next 15 years, including college/university professors, producers, and local ensemble actors, among them D. Lynne Meyers, the long-standing Artistic Director of Cincinnati’s Ensemble Theatre. Her classmates, James Nelson (full time for many years) and William Schwarber (along with Buz Davis later), came back to teach at Thomas More College. Further, many of the alumni/alumnae returned whenever asked to perform in plays at various times, including summer, all so they could stay connected to their mentor, Dr. Ron Mielech. A longtime colleague from the 1970s was Ken Fitts, who departed in the 1980s for the world of scriptwriting for daytime soap opera television.

Not surprisingly, while teaching and directing were his priorities, “Doc” Mielech continued to write. His obituary in 2018 noted that “he had plays performed on college, community, and professional stages including the famous Barter Playhouse in Arlington, VA. His play The Dancers of Canaan (about the Shakers of Kentucky) debuted at the iconic KY Repertory Theater (Horse Cave Theater)” (Ron Mielech Obituary, TMU Archives). He wrote about the classic French playwright Molière, staged readings at the Horse Cave Theater for A Sentimental Journey, wrote a play put to music by his friend and colleague Bob Schaffer called Oh My Papa, and authored a pictorial history of Thomas More College called Northern Kentucky’s First College: Villa Madonna – Thomas More College. Just before his death, he published a novel based on his early upbringing entitled, The Heroes of ’45.

Bill Schwarber, Adjunct Professor and regional actor. (Thomas More University Archives)

While he is recognized for his scholarship, it is Dr. Ron Mielech — the teacher and the mentor (“Doc”) — who is most remembered. He loved to teach and was excellent at it. The classroom was his stage. His student evaluations were consistently strong: 1) “Dr. Mielech is the best: he makes the course worthwhile because of his knowledge and passion for the subject;” 2) “any course he teaches is amazing;” 3) “the requirement that we see theatrical performances opened my eyes and my mind. This experience gave me a chance to apply what I have learned in class. As a result, I will take what I have learned with me and will remember it for the rest of my life;” 4) “Dr. Mielech is brilliant and so enthusiastic about the subject matter. It makes everything immensely interesting;” 5) “Doc always incorporates everyone’s ideas” (Student Evaluation Comments, 2000-2002, TMU Archives).

During his final full-time year, in 2001-2002 after four decades at VMC/TMC, it is appropriate that, for the second time (one of only three faculty ever to earn the distinction), he was selected by students and his peers as the “Outstanding Teacher of the Year” for 2001-2002. In her final full-time evaluation of him, his chair (Patricia Lynch) concluded:

James Nelson, a former Thomas More College student, came back to work as a Theatre Professor. (Thomas More University Archives)

“Dr Mielech is ‘Doc’ to Drama students in the most positive and endearing ways. They respect his professional activity as a playwright; they value the quality of his direction for a production; and they wrote letters expressing their desire that he would be awarded the ‘Outstanding Teacher of the Year Award for 2001-2002,’ his final year as a full-time teacher. ‘Doc’ has the personal and professional regard from his students that all conscientious and dedicated professionals dream of as a career goal” (Dr. Patricia Lynch, Faculty Evaluation of Dr. Ronald Mielech, May 2002 – submitted to Vice President for Academic Affairs, TMU Archives).

If anything stands out in remembering Dr. Ronald Mielech, it is how beloved he was by his alumni and his students and the faculty-staff group known as the Dixie Chili Club. In that final full-time year, one student wrote “Don’t go! The next generation needs you to stay” (Student Evaluation, Dr. Ronald Mielech, Spring 2002, TMU Archives).

Villa Players production, 1980. (Thomas More University Archives)

As concluded by Philip Hahn, in his Utopian article some 15 years earlier (1987) but just as relevant in 2002: “The Drama Department and the Villa Players are two things that the whole college can be (and in fact is) proud of” (Hahn article, Utopian, 2/17/1987). Dr. Ron Mielech was the founder of Thomas More’s drama department, a scholar with Yale credentials, an award-winning professor, and most importantly, a friend and mentor to many.

Dr. Raymond G. Hebert is a Professor of History and Executive Director of the William T. Robinson III Institute for Religious Liberty at Thomas More University. He has just completed his 46th year at Thomas More and, with that background, will now serve as the General Editor of the official history of Thomas More College/University from 1971-2021. With a projected title of RETROSPECT AND VISTA II, it will serve as the sequel to Sr. Irmina Saelinger’s RETROSPECT AND VISTA, the history of the first 50 years of Thomas More College (formerly Villa Madonna College). He can be contacted at hebertr@thomasmore.edu .

We want to learn more about the history of your business, church, school, or organization in our region (Cincinnati, Northern Kentucky, and along the Ohio River). If you would like to share your rich history with others, please contact the editor of “Our Rich History,” Paul A. Tenkotte, at tenkottep@nku.edu. Paul A. Tenkotte, PhD is Professor of History and Women’s & Gender Studies at Northern Kentucky University (NKU) and the author of many books and articles.

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