“Magical” was Professor Katie Whitlock’s hallmark.
She used the word artfully in her classes and conversations “to paint a picture of a moment in theatre history, a particular book or movie or painting she loved, or whatever she was discussing with her usual passion,” said her mother, Adele Bealer.
Known affectionately as “Dr. Katie” to her students, the music and theatre professor passed away at age 45 on December 7, 2015.
Her students still post Facebook messages on her wall and established a private Facebook group, Dr. Katie’s Kittens. They use the hashtag #magical to commemorate her influence on their lives and as a signal of her lasting inspiration.
Together, they’ve created a digital tribute to Whitlock for Bealer and each other, including memories and messages of grief and joy.
“I hear from someone every single day,” said Bealer, who was visited this summer by one of Whitlock’s students in Memphis, Tennessee, where she lives with her husband, Steven Bealer. “These children have been so good to this grandmotherly woman because I was there. I was there every year for tech (rehearsal) and opening night.”
Rarely living in the same state as her daughter, she never missed a show Whitlock directed.
“I was amazed by what she did, and I loved being a part of it,” said Bealer, who with her husband established the Dr. Katie Whitlock Memorial Scholarship in 2016 to support students pursuing careers in theatre design, such as lighting, sound, or set design, costuming, make-up, or stage management.
More than 15 students, alumni, parents, faculty, staff, and friends have also contributed to the scholarship.
“She would want to try to continue to open doors for students,” Bealer said. “That’s why we did this, that’s who this is for.”
Today, students are using Whitlock’s Facebook page and their private group page to explore the emotions and uncertainty surrounding the 2016 Presidential Election.
“They are all talking about using art as a way to re-establish community to bring us back together,” Bealer said. “Nothing would have pleased her more than to see her students using art to bridge that divide. That would have mattered to her.”
They often ask in their posts “What would Dr. Katie do?”—a nod to the “WWDKD” bracelets they wore at her memorial event on December 16, 2015.
Whitlock had a legendary work ethic, incredibly high standards, and a reputation for answering students’ questions by compiling for them a custom reading list of 15 or more books.
“She felt it was her responsibility to give them more than they bargained for, to show them the never-ending relevance of history and the arts, and to show how people have again and again relied on art to make sense of the world,” said Bealer, who added that Whitlock’s rigorous approach was designed to prepare students for the competitive world of graduate school and ruthless business of professional theatre.
“She didn’t want them to go into that blind,” she said.
Bealer, who was an accountant before earning a doctorate in in English and American Studies from the University of Utah in 2014, often guest lectured in Whitlock’s classes about professionalism and tax issues they might face as theatre professionals on contract.
As Bealer describes in depth each of the nine shows directed and sound-designed by her daughter, she offers a window into Whitlock’s passion for learning, fantasy, and creating experiences that turn the expected on its head.
“She was a person of huge imagination,” Bealer said. Whitlock’s students described their professor as a “good person who was never afraid to explore the dark side of life or complicate leading characters.”
Bealer says she was very interested in making roles available for and to women. She also created nontraditional roles for men and often gender-flipped characters in her shows.
“She wasn’t afraid to go where no one had gone before,” Bealer said.
An avid video gamer, Whitlock earned a PhD in theatre history, literature, and criticism from The Ohio State University, where she explored the interplay of video games, computer design, digital media, and the theatre experience, which Bealer says impacted many of the choices she made at Chico State.
Hired in 2006, she taught and developed theatre courses in new media and technology, created a curriculum for general education pathways, directed and mentored students, developed seminars for students interested in pursuing topics outside of the usual curriculum, and served on various campuswide committees.
“In so many ways there were opportunities at Chico State that she wouldn’t have had anywhere else,” said Bealer.
After her death, a group of dedicated current and former students, led by Melodie Ellison (’11), nominated Whitlock for and successfully earned her the prestigious 2016 Oscar Brockett Outstanding Teacher of Theatre in Higher Education Award by the Association for Theatre in Higher Education.
“I was absolutely flabbergasted,” Bealer said when she heard the news. “This was a student-driven desire to see her honored.”
The collaborative effort is what Bealer said her daughter encouraged in her life and teaching.
“She set the bar really high for me,” said Bealer, who attributes everything she learned about teaching inside and outside of the classroom to her daughter. “Being a professor took priority over everything.”
When Bealer thinks of the “perfect summation” of her relationship with her daughter, one word comes to mind. “Magical.”