|Photos by Doug Benz|
Talking to Mort Klayman ’46 is like spending time with a favorite uncle—he’s funny, warm, and full of interesting stories. The more he talks, the more one realizes that serendipity and good humor inform every aspect of his extraordinary life.
Mort grew up near Schenectady, New York, and came to the downtown Ithaca College campus in 1940 to study drama. Mort loved the campus, the atmosphere, and pledging Theta Alpha Phi.
Then in December 1941 Pearl Harbor was bombed. “Most of the fellows had registered for the draft,” Mort says, “but we had heard that if you enlisted with the Army Air Corps they would let you finish school. So three of my friends and I did that.” Despite his shrewd planning, however, he was called up in March of his junior year.
Five students from IC entered the Air Corps together—the four from the drama department and “one fella from music,” Mort says. The five stayed together through basic training and cadet school, and then went on to further training at the University of Toledo. They took one look at the school’s theater facilities and, recalls Mort, “couldn’t resist. We worked with Lyman Jones of the music department, and put on a big show.”
Aptitude testing led to Mort’s navigation training, from which he emerged with the rank of second lieutenant navigator. As part of a 10-man crew, he was shipped to Europe with the 449th Bomb Group of the 15th Air Force, with which he was stationed in southern Italy. If he saw horrors, Mort does not dwell on them. “My crew flew 50 missions,” he says, “and we were so lucky—all 10 of us came home.”
Mort arrived stateside in April 1945 to pick up the threads of civilian life. In New York City he auditioned for a small summer theater on Long Island. “It was a 10-week season, so I planned to return to Ithaca College in the fall,” Mort says. “But then they extended the season by another 10 weeks.” Mort took the change in plans with his typical buoyancy. “I knew I didn’t want to teach, so without taking the accreditation classes I just had 12 more credits to finish my degree. So I went back in spring of ’46 and graduated.”
Ernest B. Finch was then chair of the drama department, and he set Mort on an unplanned and, initially, unwanted career path. “Dr. Finch knew me well,” says Mort, “and he introduced me to the superintendent of schools in Tupper Lake. They needed a speech and drama teacher badly enough they didn’t care that I wasn’t certified.” The two schools collaborated to allow Mort to take certification courses during the summer, and then he headed north to Tupper Lake. The setting wasn’t a match for the urbane Mort—but he found that he enjoyed teaching tremendously. When Ithaca College contacted him about a teaching opportunity in Brockport, New York, he accepted happily. “It was exactly what I wanted to do—all speech and drama, no English.” Mort began graduate work at the University of Michigan and then transferred to Columbia, completing his masters’ degree with certification in speech and drama teaching.
“And then once again I heard from IC, about a job at Amherst Central High, in a suburb of Buffalo.” Amherst was a top high school, known particularly for its French and foreign language programs. Its hiring standards were stiff, and once again serendipity intervened. “They hired me in part because I’d actually been to France,” Mort says, “and also because of those 20 weeks of professional experience in stock theater.”
|Mort Klayman in the theater that's home to the Amherst Players, whom he has served for nearly six decades|
Mort describes his working life at Amherst as “a dream.” He met his wife, Norma, who was the chair of the foreign languages department; he taught one English course, a special elective that he designed; and he pioneered a speech curriculum in which every student took speech for three weeks a semester, all four years. It became a national model. And he took the reins of an acclaimed drama department. Amherst’s annual high-school musical is a massive affair, with a $10,000 budget and professional choreography. Under Mort’s management, the play made profits every year. But Mort didn’t limit himself to his duties at the school.
Amherst also had a “tremendous” adult education program, and Mort was hired to supervise the four-year-old Amherst Players, a branch of that curriculum. The troupe eventually evolved into a small independent not-for-profit, and Mort served as president. The troupe is now in its 59th year, and Mort has been involved every step of the way. “There’s a core group of us, but it’s almost like a producing group, we have open tryouts,” he explains. Currently he is the theater’s historian, and Norma is the business manager.
Mort further served as president of the New York State Speech Association. And during a sabbatical he did the research for a doctoral thesis on Dame Sybil Thorndike, the hatchet-faced grande dame of British stage who rose to fame playing the lead in George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan. “I interviewed her twice, in London, and once she handed me her rehearsal copy of the script of Saint Joan. It had Shaw’s handwriting on it. My wife said she had never seen me so nervous.” Mort decided against completing the doctorate.
Mort taught at Amherst for 31 years—during seven of which he actually chaired the English department, despite never teaching another English course—and officially retired in 1982. But for eight years after his retirement, he returned to stage the musical.
Mort’s connections to IC remain precious to him. “I love that place,” he says. “They were responsible for the three jobs I’ve had.” Mort has been a tireless alumni volunteer, serving as reunion chair and phonathon volunteer, among many other roles, and he has long kept in touch with the other drama students who entered the Army Air Force with him: Wayne Retzlaff ’43, Bruce Nary ’47 (who became the chair of drama at Susquehanna University), and actor Page Johnson ’47.
It is typical of Mort’s remarkably cheerful disposition that he is grateful for the role his wartime service played in getting him the Amherst job. He does, however, speak with real regret about not having had the time to see any Ithaca College plays. He and Norma are trying to gradually phase out of the Amherst Players to give them time to travel more and, he hopes, to make it to Ithaca for some of the IC productions. “I hear they’re wonderful.”
We’ll save him a front-row seat.