Jim Eitrheim, 78, legendary chair of OPRF Theater, 1959-90


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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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Reader Comments

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Jennifer Brezon-Fluteau from Gy?ur Seine, France  

Posted: April 22nd, 2011 5:04 AM

The drama and music departments at OPRF were one of it's most outstanding features, and Mr Eitrheim played a big role in making them what they were. How very lucky we all were to benefit from his professionalism and enthusiasm.

Chuck Johnson  

Posted: April 21st, 2011 9:02 PM

I absolutely agree with Bruce. Eitrheim's office was what set him apart from any other teacher. The fact that he let anyone and everyone in his private office to 'hang out' and talk/vent/create is brilliant. The ideas, the humor, the heartfelt feelings that were shared in that room between 2 or 3 students, or sometimes 20 or more, was amazing. It truly was the Algonquin Round Table of OPRF. He will be missed.

Jessica Klaus Greenberg from Oak Park  

Posted: April 20th, 2011 9:04 AM

I will never forget Mr. Eitrheim. He cast me in my first play and taught me countless lessons about performance, oration and self-confidence. Most importantly, Mr. Eitrheim consistently modeled kindness, understanding and patience for all students. I teach now myself and my memories of Mr. Eitrheim continue to influence the way I work with kids. May he rest in peace :)

Kathy from Downers Grove  

Posted: April 19th, 2011 9:37 PM

I so agree that one of the beautiful things about Mr. Eitrheim was that his class was for everyone. There were those who had a natural gift and those who had to work harder to overcome shyness and communicate effectively through drama. I will always remember his sense of humor, his boundless energy, and his warmth. I have been a teacher for over 20 years, and he has always been such an inspiration to me.

Pat Koko from Oak Park  

Posted: April 19th, 2011 9:17 PM

Jim was wonderful not only to the students but to their parents who chose to be involved while their children were in his loving care. I realize as I read these comments that another whole group of folks owe their careers to Jim..Voice Over artists -- the ones we hear and do not see. I know personally of Pam Turlow and Bill Rohlfing but there are more as well. He inspired so many.

Bruce Henderson from Ithaca, NY  

Posted: April 19th, 2011 7:37 PM

To the list of the famous professionals often cited in Mr. Eitrheim's career (and he made a place for stars and non-stars alike--that second floor was a safe haven for all who wanted one), I would also add that he inspired many of us to pursue teaching as our life's work--whether it be in communication and performance (such as myself), or other subjects at levels from elementary through college levels. His legacy as a teacher of teachers is as important as his legacy as a teacher of acto


Posted: April 19th, 2011 4:10 PM

I am not and was not any type of actress, but all of us in Mr Eitrheim's drama classes realized how professional he was. When we didn't feel like "working", we could get him to talk about drama in general and South Dakota in particular. It was always fun. I am still stunned at the huge number of outstanding plays I was able to enjoy during my 4 years there.

Mark Bode from Cincinnati, OH  

Posted: April 19th, 2011 3:58 PM

Jim Eitrheim was the best teacher I had at a school with great teachers. The friends I made in theater are the ones I am closest to out of either high school or college. Althought I went on to Wall Street, Silicon Valley and then into venture capital and medical devices I have always kept the joy of theater and happily build sets and help with my children's plays. He was a light to all who knew him. I will miss him.

Nancy Greco from Forest Park  

Posted: April 18th, 2011 6:19 PM

I hope the local papers run a memorial for James Eitrheim and cover the book party in May. It would mean a lot to those he taught, along with his contributions to the Villages of Oak Park and River Forest. Not only did he direct at the high school, but he was a narrator for the Symphony of Oak Park when they performed "Tubby, The Tuba." Many of his students went on to successful careers in the performing arts, especially on stage and screen.

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