A night out with friends: Old and new
Feb. 7, 2001
Sally and I made two new friends last week. We also got to spend an evening remembering an old friend, "A Gentlemen from Mississippi," the late John Cornelius Stennis. And in addition enjoyed a first class professional theater experience exploring the profound links between youth and age. A great celebration of old age.
The new friends, David Dallas and Rico Rosetti, were our house guests. David is a writer and actor. Rico is a director as well as an actor. MCC's learning in retirement center, Lifetime Quest, arranged for local audiences to get a peak at their one-man show, "A Gentleman from Mississippi."
David is the author as well as the solo performer. But that's where he is now. Over a dozen years ago David Dallas was a graduate student at Mississippi State University in search of a master's degree in public administration. His grad school job was caregiver for MSU's most distinguished campus resident, John C. Stennis.
In 1989 John Stennis retired after 41 years of service in the United States Senate. The Senator came home to his beloved Mississippi State University. Living in a home provided by MSU, Stennis was assisted by two graduate students who shared his home. David Dallas was one of those chosen to keep company with the Senator.
Living with and caring for a 90 year old man is not every 22 year old grad student's ideal job. But on the other hand David had the best teacher at the university. Character education by example. And it turns out the Senator had much more than a student caretaker.
In "A Gentleman from Mississippi" David Dallas reveals himself as an insightful biographer. Mobilizing his gifts as a writer and actor, David shares a tale which celebrates the Senator's accomplishments and humanity. Words like integrity and honor and duty resonated across my consciousness throughout the evening.
The original script for the play ran around three hours. A bit too long. No, make that way too long, especially for a one-man show. Enter Rico Rosetti whose editing brought the show to less than an hour and half.
Maintaining audience engagement, Rosetti's pacing and lighting keep connection and interest with each of the four principals played by Dallas.
That's correct. Dallas carries at least four roles. The young grad student. The aging octogenarian. The second and third term Senator. And David Dallas today.
This continuing juxtaposition of youth and age adds dimension to each vignette within the play. The graduate student and the frail elderly gentleman engage in tests of will as well as moments of camaraderie. Infusions of humor bring additional warmth to the tale.
David Dallas' Dad teaches history at Delta State University. The acorn didn't fall far from the tree. "A Gentleman from Mississippi" employs specific events to bookmark the John Stennis legacy of integrity and honor. Great teaching of our nation's history.
For example, the gentleman from Mississippi was the first among his colleagues to step forward to defend the honor of the United States Senate against the irrational and irresponsible behaviors of Senator Joseph McCarthy.
Who recalls the first voice in the Senate to warn against commitment of American troops in Vietnam? Dwight Eisenhower was president as John Stennis took the floor to raise questions about the role of Congress, specifically the role of the Senate, in sanctioning overseas involvement of our troops.
Public acts, private life
These events from the public life of John Stennis are enlarged with Dallas' insight into the private world of the aging statesman. The congruence of John Stennis' private life and public acts illuminate the character of the "Gentleman." And in fact, give definition to the term, "gentleman."
John C. Stennis died April 23, 1995. Within the play the David Dallas of today recounts his final nursing home visit with Stennis in Madison. The powerful lessons the aging public servant taught his young caregiver resound with compassion and humor, with respect and love.
David Dallas' love for John Stennis, the man, transcends his admiration for Senator John C. Stennis, the statesman and public servant. This is not a tale of public life, of the arena of politics. It is a story about the ties which bind the human heart. Both the biographer's heart as well as the subject's heart.
Bill Scaggs is president emeritus at Meridian Community College and a senior consulting editor for The Meridian Star. E-mail them at email@example.com.