James Eitrheim, 78, retired chairperson of Speech, Drama and Performing Arts at Oak Park and River Forest High School, died Saturday, April 16, 2011, at his home in Pequot Lakes, Minn. He died of stomach cancer, said Karin Eitrheim Maas, his daughter, a drama educator in Minneapolis.

Mr. Eitrheim was born into a farming and teaching family in Baltic, S.D. He made his stage debut at the age of 15 in a high school production at Lyons High School, where his mother Selma Thompson Eitrheim taught.

He earned a bachelor’s degree in theater from Augustana College in Sioux Falls, S.D., where he met Earl Mundt. “I knew when I returned to college after the Navy,” Eitrheim said, “that I wanted to be a speech and English teacher. Earl told me I’d better get next to him because if I was going to get hired in some small-town high school, they would want me to direct plays, too. Speech and English teachers usually had to do that. I never dreamed I would go on to get my master’s in theater.”

At Augustana, he met fellow student Diane Johnson and two years later they were married in Hamburg, Iowa. They moved on to Champaign, where Mr. Eitrheim earned his master’s degree in one year. “He had a contract at Oak Park and River Forest High School and the Speech/Theatre Department had not been able to place a teacher at OPRF,” explained Diane Eitrheim.

The high school theater program he joined in 1959 was already well respected and produced three performances a year. When he left in 1990, the program routinely produced 11 shows a year in three separate theaters, a tradition that continues to this day.

Mr. Eitrheim lobbied hard for the new theater spaces. “I can hardly believe they listened to me,” he said. “I had turned 30 years old in 1963, and in 1964 I was campaigning for that entire facility, and we got it done and moved in by 1968, spending millions of the community’s dollars putting together a fine arts program that I could only dream about, and I had backing all the way.”

What followed in the next 10 years could be described fairly as the golden age of OPRF theater, presented to packed houses of appreciative local audiences. The short list from the ’70s and ’80s includes artists who went on to excellence in film, television and live theater: Felicity LaFortune, Dan Castellaneta, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Chuck Johnson, Michael Dunn, Helene Alexopoulos, Kathy Griffin, Moon-Hi Hanson, Alex Wurman and Tom Lennon. Nominations and awards earned by former students include Oscars, Tonys, Golden Globes, Drama Desks, Grammys, Jeffs, Daytime and Primetime Emmys and a Peabody.

Mr. Eitrheim served for over five years on the Joseph Jefferson Award Committee in Chicago. In 1990, he was honored by his Alma Mater with their Outstanding Alumni Achievement and Service Award. That same year, after 31 years of teaching stagecraft, drama, directing and mentoring students, Mr. Eitrheim accepted a position at the University of Sioux Falls in South Dakota, where he taught until 1998. In retirement, he remained active in the theater community, and his career ended as it began, with a comedy, directing his last show, See How They Run, at Pequot Lakes Community Theater in 2005, bringing to a close 52 years in the performing arts arena.

A master storyteller, he was also a skilled carpenter. He built his retirement home on several acres on the shore of Sibley Lake in Pequot Lakes, Minn.

Throughout his life, he remained an active member of the Lutheran faith, serving on various committees and choirs. He was a member of Lutheran Church of the Cross in Nisswa, Minn.

Jim Eitrheim was preceded in death by his parents Dan and Selma Eitrheim, his brother Donald, and his niece Susan Lankford.

He is survived by his wife, Diane; his children, Kristofer (Eileen), Karin (Steve) Maas, and Erik (Dawn); his brother Norm (Clarice) Eitrheim; his sister, Esther (Bill) Boadwine; his sister-in-law, Joan Eitrheim; his five grandchildren, Greta, Ingrid, Alec, Erik and Ava; and his nine nieces and nephews.

A memorial service will be held at Lutheran Church of the Cross on May 7 at 1 p.m. with a reception to follow.

Memorials are requested to the following funds:

n The Jim Eitrheim Theatre Scholarship at Augustana College in Sioux Falls, S.D.

n The James Eitrheim Award for Excellence in Dramatic Arts at Oak Park and River Forest High School in Oak Park, Ill.

n Lighting for the sanctuary at Lutheran Church of the Cross in Nisswa, Minn.

They number in the thousands, yet each person who learned from Jim Eitrheim shared one common experience: Everyone in his presence felt as though they were the most important person in the world.

Look and Lean, a book celebrating his life and legacy, will be the highlight of a book release party on Saturday, May 14, 2011 at Oak Park and River Forest High School in the Auditorium and Student Center from 7 to 10 p.m. Everyone in the community is warmly invited. Books will be on sale for $20 and party tickets are $10 at the door or through the website lookandlean.com.

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