ON STAGE: Emke Cusmano as the Nurse in Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” in 1964.

After graduating from Bemidji State in June of 1960, I was hired to teach English, speech and drama, plus direct plays at Bound Brook High School in New Jersey, 35 miles west of New York City. Over the years, many of those students (now in their mid 70s) still stay in touch with me. They invite me back to class reunions, send me emails, greeting cards and often call me, just to see how I’m doing in my old age.

One former student comes to mind: Emke Cusmano, who played the Nurse in our 1964 production of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” After graduating from high school, she attended Hofstra University, where she majored in theater and minored in French. Years later, when she, her husband Bruce and their two kids moved to Atlanta, I was a guest at their beautiful home. They took me for an evening of food and swimming on their lovely boat docked on a lake north of the city.

In Atlanta, Emke and Bruce started an extensive architectural antique business, Metropolitan Artifacts. The first time I visited their showroom on the north side of the city, I was not visiting a store. No way! I was walking through a museum of American and European artifacts, some dating back to the 1700s.

When I decided to write about Emke, I wanted her to contribute an essay reflecting on the role high school and college theater played in her outstanding career as a business woman. This is what Emke wrote:

“I remember every moment of learning the art of theater and acting from Ozzie Tollefson, our teacher, who trained all of us to be the best in our chosen fields. We knew we were expected to be exceptional. And, he made sure we were. Whether we had chosen building sets, lighting, sound, choreography, advertising or acting, we were supported and inspired by his knowledge, enthusiasm and encouragement. Needless to say, our productions were always sold out. Below, is a list of specific skills I’ve learned from this experience:

Be creative and open-minded. Do more, not less. Be determined and passionate. Be humble. Share your passion, so you can help other students find their passion.

“When my husband and I decided to form our own business 43 years ago, we created a niche market. This required creative brainstorming. Being self-employed means you are a ‘one man/woman show.’ It requires discipline, self-awareness and ambition.

“These were the skills I had learned in high school, and they have been required, every step of the way. We created our ‘play’ about French architectural antiques, our ‘characters’ are our inventory of beautiful statuary, fountains, bronze chandeliers, grand entry doors and stunning balconies placed in our ‘sets’ in lovely vignettes. They demanded romancing ‘scripts’ to be presented to our ‘audience’ i.e. our customers. The ‘script’ was improvisational, depending on the customer’s needs. Our ‘applause’ after our ‘performance’ is the purchase. A satisfied customer will return for another ‘play.’

“Early on, the business became theatrical, as well as commercial and residential. We do prop-rental to the movie industry nationwide. Atlanta is now the ‘Hollywood of the South.’

“And so, we’ve come full circle. I attribute it to my involvement in theater beginning with Bound Brook High School and my drama teacher in the 1960s. He is a very special mentor with a dramatic impact on my life. So, to this very day, I say, ‘thank you, Mr. Tollefson.’

And, thank you, Emke, for staying in touch with your old school teacher.

Ozzie Tollefson is the author of “Mr. Teacher” and lives near Phelps Mill.

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