Gem of a Donation

KENNESAW, Ga. | Apr 10, 2017

Jim and Ann Wallace endow Onyx Theater

Jim Wallace
The anonymous couple behind one of the most significant gifts in the history of the Department of Theatre and Performance Studies stepped into the limelight on March 22, almost five years to the day after secretly bestowing a $250,000 gift to name Kennesaw State’s then-new black box theater as the Onyx Theater.

During a special ceremony in the Stillwell Theater to reveal the donors’ identities, College of the Arts (COTA) Dean Patty Poulter thanked Jim and Ann Wallace of east Cobb for “this transformational gift, which has allowed lots more people to enjoy the art of live performance in this vital and creative space where numerous stories have been told.”

The Wallaces officially acknowledged the well-kept secret that has had many people guessing since March 25, 2012, when Kennesaw State unveiled the theater’s new name. Speaking for the couple, Jim explained the Onyx name was chosen to inspire student thespians to shine out of the darkness like the namesake gemstone.

“The name dignifies the space by associating its blackness with a gemstone, a transformation into that which is precious,” he said. “So, it is a space for transforming students into actors, writers, designers and directors whose talents shine like a gemstone.”

One of those students who would himself be transformed was none other than Jim Wallace.

Jim came to acting late in life. In college, he studied chemical engineering, but switched his major to earn his bachelor’s in business and technology at Oregon State University.

After a stint in the Army, he joined IBM in 1965. Although he found fulfillment in helping his clients solve their business issues, deep inside the introverted systems engineer beat the heart of an actor. To scratch his acting itch, Jim contented himself with creating roles for himself in business presentations designed to entertain and inform the participants.

Fast forward to 2003 when Jim, who had since retired from IBM, discussed with then COTA Dean Joe Meeks the idea of enrolling at Kennesaw State to study acting.

“Jim told me that he was interested in returning to college to finally purse a second degree and fulfill his passion for acting by becoming a theater major,” Meeks said.

The Wallaces had known Meeks for almost 20 years at that point. Meeks had provided private piano lessons for their then 12-year-old son, Martin. Martin, who studied with Meeks until he graduated from high school, is now a performer and composer in New York City.

Jim arrived extra early on the first day of his first class and, not surprisingly, realized he was the oldest person in the room, even older than his professor. However, rather than feeling out of place, he soon felt welcomed by the much younger students and the faculty.

“Jim was excited with almost every course he took, including his time in the dance studio,” Meeks said. “He became a champion for the department, the College of the Arts and Kennesaw State University.”

Because Jim was intent on landing acting roles in COTA’s theater productions based on his talent and not his stewardship, he and Ann declined to be named as Kennesaw State donors. Jim wanted to know he had earned his roles and his grades on his own merit.

In addition to acting in a dozen COTA productions (portraying Virgil Blessing in William Inge’s Bus Stop and recently Chebutykin in Anton Chekov’s Three Sisters), Jim also has appeared in several films and a TV commercial for the Georgia Lottery.

Speaking during the Onyx Theater recognition ceremony before a packed house of students, faculty and staff, Jim explained the impetus for the $250,000 naming gift had come from Meeks.

“For most of our lives, the idea of being able to make a major financial gift was simply unimaginable, that is until Joe Meeks gently suggested the possibility,” Jim said.

The Wallaces also credited the concept of “precessional effects” from the teachings of the educator, inventor and futurist Buckminster Fuller for eventually becoming donors after meeting with Meeks and their many positive experiences with Kennesaw State.

“Fuller believed that the only reason for having a purpose is so that as one pursues that purpose, unanticipated events, i.e., precessional effects, will present themselves,” Jim said.

Jim offered an example of an unanticipated event, recounting an interview on PBS’ Charlie Rose program with Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator and lead actor of Hamilton: An American Musical.

Miranda explained the genesis for his Broadway hit was Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton, which he had picked up to read – by chance – on vacation in July 2008. Miranda told Rose, “I wanted a big, long book … but, really, I was just browsing the biography section. It could have been Truman!”

Hamilton: An American Musical would go on to win 11 Tony Awards in 2016.

Jim told the audience, “How one responds to those precessional effects often has a profound influence on one’s life experience. Most of us spend our lives seeking things that will make us happy. But once we obtain whatever it is we think will make us happy – that new BMW, those fancy tennis shoes – we find that the happiness is short lived,” he said. “Some other desire takes its place. But that hasn’t been the case with this gift.

“The joyous feeling has been long lasting. Why? I think it’s because this is about caring about people, not things.”

-- Robert S. Godlewski

Photos by David Caselli

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