He was fondly referred to as “Mr. Richmond Hill,” and theater was a way of life for the late John VanDeWoestyne.
VanDeWoestyne passed away on March 25 and his absence will be felt by many. His name is familiar to area theater-goers for his talent on stage and as a director, both with Geneseo’s Richmond Hill Players and numerous other area theater groups.
His involvement with Richmond Hill Theater in Geneseo began in 1982, with encouragement from the late Clyde Walter, who was instrumental in the founding of the theater group in 1968.
Because the Barn Theater was not “winterized” at the time, in 1982 the Richmond Hill Players began augmenting the regular season at the Barn with dinner theater productions at the former King’s Table Restaurant in Geneseo in the winter months. It was at the King’s Table where VanDeWoestyne made his debut with RHP.
He had shopped at the former Clyde Walter’s men’s clothing store in Geneseo, but didn’t really know the store owner that well at the time, VanDeWoestyne said in an interview I did with him about 10 years ago.
In that interview VanDeWoestyne said he and Clyde Walter had mutual friends and he let it be known through them that he thought VanDeWoestyne would be good on stage and suggested he audition.
He was cast as the lead character in the first dinner theater production at the former King’s Table and never looked back.
Theater truly was a way of life for VanDeWoestyne and he also once said in a previous interview, “I think all of us have something deep inside us, often in a secret place that makes us whole. For me, with the exception of hearing my children’s laughter, I’m never happier than when I’m on stage crawling around in someone else’s skin for a couple hours. The bond between actor and audience is precious. Let’s take a journey together and see where it goes.”
In that earlier interview with VanDeWoestyne, he spoke about being fortunate to live in the western Illinois and eastern Iowa region and said, “There can’t be another metropolitan of +/- 400,000 anywhere in this country that has so much quality year-round theater available to the masses as we have in the Quad City metro area. All of us do not hit home runs every time out of the box, but many productions staged in the area could easily play on stages in Chicago and elsewhere.”
VanDeWoestyne’s license plate reads “THEATRE” and that sums it up – a way of life for him.
Diane Greenwood, and her husband John, have been friends with VanDeWoestyne and his wife Judy since 1984, and after VanDeWoestyne’s death, Diane Greenwood said, “In Geneseo, word gets around fast, and the talk of the town had to be the death of one of my dearest friends, the incomparable magnificently talented John VanDeWoestyne.”
Diane Greenwood shared the theater stage many times with VanDeWoestyne, at Richmond Hill Theater as well as in other area theater groups.
“Vande was Geneseo Street Superintendent for yers so was a well-known figure,” she said. “But, he will forever be identified with the best of the Quad Cities theater and most particularly with Richmond Hill Players. I called him Mr. RHP for good reason. He loved our community theatre in the round with every fiber of this being, and he devoted heart, soul, talent and innumerable hours ensuring its success.”
She said she first met VanDeWoestyne when she was cast as Louisa and he as El Gallo in “The Fantasticks, which was Greenwood’s first Richmond Hill production.
“I think he has served as RHP president five times plus he wore simultaneously the mantle for membership, fund raising, reservations, selling ads for our program. He has done it all. RHP was his life. He’s irreplaceable.”
Her husband, John Greenwood, considered VanDeWoestyne “one of my best friends.” Greenwood commented about VanDeWoestyne’s quick wit and said, “John had an extremely quick wit and was always ready to throw out a quip which would usually cause everyone to double over in laughter.”
Stan Weimer, well-known for his many appearances with the Richmond Hill Players, and his wife, Donna, also were close friends of VanDeWoestyne.
It was 1987 when the two men first met and at the time VanDeWoestyne was directing “Twelve Angry Men” for the Richmond Hill Players.
“He contacted me and asked if I would read for a part in the play,” Weimer said. “I knew who John was, but had never met him,” Weimer said. “He brought the script of ‘Twelve Angry Men’ to our house and had me read for it and then told me if I had a part he would contact me. He called me later and told me he wanted me to be the foreman of the jury in the play.”
Weimer learned that John was looking for men to fill parts in “Twelve Angry Men,”
and someone who had seen Weimer perform in high school plays suggested he contact Weimer to audition for a part.
That was the beginning of a lasting friendship and a bond between the two men as they both loved the theater and the Richmond Hill Players.
“John was the ultimate director,” Weimer said. “He was so organized. He would use chess pieces to layout the blocking for a performance before we met to rehearse. He would make changes if necessary as he knew the importance of not having one actor block another so the audience could see who was speaking.”
Their friendship was not limited to the stage and Richmond Hill as two men were in the same card group with other men in the area.
“We also both have November birthdays and Donna and I would celebrate with John and Judy every year,” Weimer said. “We also went to lots of plays together and to many Chicago Cubs baseball games.”
Weimer recalled a time when he and VanDeWoestyne made a trip to Eureka to a school where they were putting in new seats and giving away the old seats…”When we saw how nice the seats were they were putting in, we decided we would try to raise money for new seats at The Barn and that fundraising was a success.”
“John will be very much missed, he was a great actor and it was great to be in plays with him,” Weimer said. “Some people can act and others can sing, but it is rare for one person; to be able to do both and John could do both very well.”