Jill Poehlman, an actress who along with her husband Michael Poehlman, developed the Communication Arts, Speech and Theater Education (CAST) program at Julian Middle School into a local institution, died yesterday morning. Poehlman’s death was confirmed by officials at Dominican University, where she headed the Dominican Performing Arts Center.

Dominican President Donna Carroll said that Poehlman was responsible for reviving the college’s performing arts community.

“Jill had an energy about her that was contagious, attracting students to the stage from all disciplines and levels of experience,” Carroll wrote in a statement. “She was demanding; she pushed students to test their talents; and in the process, she built a ‘community’ of actors.”

“During her years at Dominican she not only rebuilt the performing arts; but she also fell in love with the Sinsinawa Dominican mission, became a Dominican Associate and went from the university to work for the congregation,” Carroll noted.

Father Richard Woods, a professor of theology at Dominican, recalled working with Poehlman on many productions both for the university and the Dominican Associates, an organization of laypersons who are affiliated with the Dominican Sisters of Peace.

“Dominican Associates are Christian women and men; married, single, divorced, and widowed; clergy members and lay persons who were first drawn to and then called to live out the charisma and continue the mission of the Dominican Order – to praise, to bless, to preach,” according to a website sponsored by the Dominican Sisters Association.

“Jill was a true and wonderful friend to me and so many others, especially her students,” Father Woods said. “Her spirituality was expressed in deeds more than words […] She will be sorely missed, but her memory remains warm, alive and indelible.”

In 1985, the Poehlmans were recruited by former Julian Middle School principal Dr. Benjamin Williams to run CAST, a concept that was spawned from an afterschool program that the former principal started “to keep an eye out on children until their parents ‘got home from the Loop,'” Williams recalled in a 2010 interview with the Wednesday Journal.

“I just wanted a good program that really respected children,” Williams said. The idea was to bring in real actors to teach children the craft – not from textbooks, but in real life. Williams called on Jill and Michael Poehlman, a husband-and-wife acting duo who lived in Oak Park at the time, to run the operation.

“The job of a principal is to hire good people and free them up, let them go,” Williams said, noting that the two married thespians put CAST on the map and ultimately achieved “what few thought possible: Having middle school boys and girls sing and dance on stage,” according to the 2010 Wednesday Journal article.

The Poehlmans retired from CAST in 1997, but by then they had set the program on its course. In 2010, under the direction of Bill McGlynn, CAST celebrated its 25th anniversary by producing Peter Pan, a show CAST pulled off in its first magical year of 1985.

The 2010 production comprised 55 kids and an additional 80-voice choir. The cast underwent about 15 hours of flying instruction, which was carried out in secret by a world-renowned Las Vegas company.

“I’ll always think of Jill Poehlman as a great teacher,” said McGlynn in a statement. “Whether it was directing a young person to take that first step onto a stage or encouraging a community to build something unique with our educational system – her unshakable faith in our success was endlessly motivating.”

CAST and Dominican University’s performing arts are testimonies to Jill Poehlman’s enduring legacy, according to Father Woods.

“She was a brilliant director, multi-talented, funny and remarkably patient but could elicit the best effort in others just as she gave her own,” he said. “Jill excited excellence.”

Funeral arrangements are currently pending. More information will be posted as this story develops.

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