When Urusula Bock heard Michael Sundblad was leaving Thomas Nelson, she called him shortly after to offer congratulations. She also told him that as soon as their call ends, she was going home to cry.
That seems to be a common reaction from Sundblad’s colleagues, all of whom are excited for him in his new position, but also sad he’s leaving the College after 14 years. Sundblad, chair of the performing arts department, will become a dean at Lewis and Clark Community College in Illinois. His last day at Thomas Nelson was June 26.
This move has been in the making for a few years. He said when he was doing work for his doctorate, which he earned recently from Northeastern University, he learned a lot about student populations that need an advocate.
“I discovered in myself a desire to have a deeper impact on teaching and learning than I could as a department chair,” he said.
There’s little doubt of the impact he’s had on the Thomas Nelson community since joining the College in 2007. He helped establish associate degrees in the Fine Arts department, added an annual summer operetta to the College’s schedule, and helped push performing arts to new heights.
Comments from several colleagues show his impact:
- “His contributions to the College are just enormous. I think that they will ripple out for some time to come because he has touched so many students and faculty members. … His tenure here is going to be remembered for quite some time, and very, very positively and very fondly.” - English professor Beth Beasley, who was on the committee that hired Sundblad, co-directed a number of plays with him and sang in his choirs.
- “Working hard to support the faculty and staff, working hard to be inclusive are among his greatest accomplishments.” – English professor Jackie Blackwell, who also appeared in some of his plays and sang in his choirs.
- “People are going to think back to the time when Michael Sundblad and Torrie Sanders were here to move the performing arts program forward. … Few individuals leave as significant a mark on this college and touched as many lives in the community as Michael has.” – Bock, who became dean of Communications, Humanities and Social Sciences and was Sundblad’s supervisor.
- “Both he and Torrie were critical in advancing the performing arts program. It gave us a face in the community, and people knew about the kind of work we were doing at Thomas Nelson in the performing arts.” – Sandra Calderon-Doherty, music and theater professor, who also worked on performances with Sundblad.
- “From the limited time (I had with him), his push to keep the program popular and exciting and engaging (will be his legacy). – Jim Worthey, Dr. Mary T. Christian Auditorium manager, who joined the College in September 2019 as the successor to Sanders.
A GREAT FIRST IMPRESSION
Beasley remembers Sundblad immediately stood out during the interview process.
“Probably the first thing was his background and knowledge and expertise in music. Along with that was his real, genuine passion for not just his subject area, but for teaching,” she said.
Sundblad’s enthusiasm in working with students, particularly those at a community college, also was evident, as was his desire to share with them his passion for music.
“I think that was what really stood out,” Beasley said. “Over time, that was borne out more than once.”
The success of those students, a number of whom have gone on to work in New York City or Los Angeles as professional actors, was among his greatest accomplishment at the College, he said. Those students quickly came to mind when he looked back on his time at Thomas Nelson.
“What I think of are the students who have been a success, the music and theater students who have gone on to become teachers or performers or working in the field, whatever that is for them,” he said. “That’s what I think of. I don’t know if that’s what others will think of.”
Others think of a lot, from his work as a professor, a director of plays and choirs, and the leader of the performing arts department.
“He was just so darn talented in so many different things,” Bock said.
Calderon-Doherty said he had many traits.
“Funny guy, hard worker, can do music and theater, can step in if something’s wrong and will solve problems. What else do you ask for in an employee?” she said.
Beasley said his varied talents made her better in many areas.
“He was able to pull from me performances and work at a level that I didn’t know I could do,” she said. “He made me a better artist. He made me a better teacher. He made me a better singer just by setting an example and just the way he was able to encourage and inspire almost everybody who came in contact with him.”
Sundblad remembers his interview, too. He recalls saying, “I see musical theater in your future. I see all these different opportunities.” He also saw great potential in the Mary T. Christian Auditorium, and with the College.
“The building was very little used, and I saw what opportunities existed if the right leadership were in place to be able to let me build things,” he said, noting the two went hand in glove. “And the leadership at the time, the faculty committee, the dean, were all very interested.”
Under his leadership, the College began producing three performances a year: a play, a musical, and a summer operetta. He is particularly proud of the latter, especially since few colleges, let alone community colleges, even attempt opera.
“We had a following both in terms of actors and singers, but also in terms of audience,” he said. “People would come back summer after summer after summer to see those. That was really exciting for us as a performing arts team.”
That was his goal from the beginning at Thomas Nelson.
“I had hoped we would be doing yearly musicals, and that’s what we did pretty early on in my tenure at the College,” he said, adding he always wanted to do operas at a community college. “I just wasn’t sure that Thomas Nelson would be the place where that would happen. And it did, and I was very pleased that we were able to do that for so long.”
He hopes that continues.
“There’s clearly a need for it, both in terms of audience and performers,” he said. “Some of those opera performances sold out, which is sort of unheard of for amateur opera. Or for that matter, academic opera. It was really exciting to be able to do that.”
HIS GOOFY SIDE
Everyone has a funny Michael Sundblad story. There’s the picture of him lying on his back on the floor with a student standing over him, pointing at him and laughing. There’s the time he conducted the orchestra wearing a Viking helmet. Or the sight of him trying to direct the choir or orchestra, but falling apart laughing at something that’s happened or at himself.
That goofiness is all part of his charm, and he embraces it.
“The way that I put it is I’m a serious professional, a serious performer, but I don’t take myself seriously,” he said. “I’m willing to be the butt of a joke. I’m often engaged in self-effacing humor. Teaching and learning and making art should be joyous. If they’re not, we’re doing something wrong.”
That enjoyment was why Blackwell came back time after time. She recalls her first performance with Sundblad was a radio play called “Frankenstein,” where they stood in front of microphones and did the acting. Her daughters also were involved in that production.
“I just remember it as being so much fun,” she said. “That was really the reason I continued to try to work with performing arts. It was not just the acting, but also working with Michael and Torrie that made it so fulfilling.”
For Beasley, it went beyond fun.
“He has this ability to really challenge people, students and colleagues; to challenge you to push you to do your very best, to put your all into what you’re doing. But at the same time, he’s not pushy about it.”
PATIENCE A VIRTUE
As colleagues, performers and friends of Sundblad, Blackwell, Beasley and Calderon-Doherty have seen just about all sides of him.
“He is an extremely patient professor of music,” Blackwell said. “He works very hard with students to get them to understand musical concepts, even very difficult musical concepts.”
She noted when she joined the College’s choir, it featured music majors and “just singers.” Even though she had been singing in a church choir all her life, she didn’t know how to read music.
“Michael Sundblad taught me how to read music. He taught me how to understand difficult musical concepts,” she said, and he did that for others also.
Beasley said as a co-director with Sundblad on numerous performances, they worked closely together.
“He is wonderful to work with,” she said. “He is enthusiastic. He’s a wonderful teacher. He’s a wonderful leader. He listens to people. He’s funny.”
He did whatever was needed.
“Michael not only served as musical director he also built (and struck) sets, sewed, and pitched in with his bare hands from day one, and at the last minute, too many times to mention,” Blackwell said.
Calderon-Doherty witnessed that also.
“Something that people wouldn’t necessarily know about Michael is that he can as easily paint a flat, build a flat, paint the floors, sweep the floors, just as easily as he could conduct the orchestra and chair the department and be at the box office,” she said. “He wears so many hats, because that’s the job. When you’re in theater, you have to wear a lot of hats.”
REFLECTION, NOT REGRETS
Of course, there are things he would have liked to have accomplished, but didn’t, for one reason or another. As he looks back on his 14 years at the College, he prefers to dwell on the positives.
Yes, he is most proud of his students' success. Second to that is the quality of the College’s annual performances.
“I was able to get the choir singing at a really high level,” he said, adding he had a lot of help and support from colleagues, the College administration and the community. “The same is true, I think, of the plays, musicals, and operas.”
“I’m so impressed with what he did in terms of a performing arts department at the College,” she said.
His productions at the College made it out into the community.
“He helped build the College’s reputation as a really good place for students to come to study the performing arts,” Beasley continued. “And also for the community to come and enjoy as spectators really, really high-quality art.”
TIME IS RIGHT
As much as he will miss the College, mostly his students and colleagues, he realizes he has a wonderful opportunity.
“I’m hoping to have a deeper impact on teaching and learning, and helping faculty and students to be successful,” he said of his new role.
His colleagues will miss him, too, but they also understand the decision.
As Bock wrote in an email to the College community: “This is an outstanding opportunity for him to broaden his experience and allow a different institution to benefit from his exceptional competence and focused commitment, all wrapped up in a most congenial personality.”