Director, actor, writer, teacher George Poletes

  • Article by: TIM HARLOW , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 5, 2009 - 8:24 PM

The award-winning playwright and beloved theater instructor at St. Thomas and the College of St. Catherine is remembered for his infectious love of the theater.

George Poletes stepped into the theater world as a high school student, and he spent his life there.

Poletes earned many awards for starring in plays and musicals at Augustana College in his native Sioux Falls, S.D. He went on to become an accomplished actor who performed in off-Broadway and summer stock productions before spending 46 years sharing his expertise and passion for the stage with hundreds of students whom he taught and cast in shows at the University of St. Thomas and the College of St. Catherine in St. Paul.

Poletes will be remembered Thursday at a memorial service at the College of St. Catherine. He died Jan. 3 at age 76 from complications of hydrocephalus, an abnormal buildup of cerebrospinal fluid in the ventricles of the brain. He died in Seattle, where he had moved after he retired in 2004.

"He left behind a legacy of generosity, humor, insight and wisdom," said Gregg Sawyer, artistic director of Starlight Productions and the Academy of Holy Angels Theater School in Richfield. "Whether directing his students, writing plays for children or judging one-act plays, George was guided by a profound and deep desire to teach. We are all better directors, actors, educators and people because of the lessons he shared and the spirit he imparted."

Poletes spent one year at Hamline University in St. Paul before heading up the joint theater department for the St. Catherine and St. Thomas colleges. Over the years, he taught theater classes, directed and acted in more than 100 plays and pageants, and started a series of summer children's shows, said Jo Ann Holonbek, who taught with Poletes for 30 years.

"He loved huge productions," she said. "Often 50 people would audition and everybody got in."

Poletes wrote many original scripts, including "Efthemia," which he penned in 1996 as a tribute to his mother, Efthemia. At other times, he added his creative touch to existing masterpieces such as when he staged a rock version of Shakespeare's "Antigone."

"He liked to put his own stamp on things," said his daughter Efthemia Antigone Poletes, of Marine on St. Croix.

Students appreciated him for the love, energy and spontaneity he exhibited in the classroom, and for his patience, such as when they didn't get things just right.

"He could relate to the students and the difficulty they had, such as trouble projecting their voices," his daughter said. "He was an amazing teacher who got students to be their best and reach their potential."

Poletes used his expansive vocabulary to write scripts for radio, television and newspapers. He won many awards, including being the first recipient of the McKnight Award for playwriting in 1959. He also received the Amoco Gold Medallion Award from the American College Theater Festival for excellence in academic theater. Poletes was given the Outstanding Faculty Award in 1980 from the College of St. Catherine. When he ventured into writing for film in the 1970s, he received a $12,000 grant from the Jerome Foundation.

Offstage, Poletes was known for his sharp wit and for cooking Greek recipes, his daughter said.

In addition to his daughter Efthemia, he is survived by his second wife, of 33 years, Roberta Hudson Poletes, of Edmonds, Wash.; two other daughters, Maria Alexandra Poletes and Catherine Athena Poletes, of St. Paul; and two sons, Evangelo Yougous Poletes and Harilaos Yourgous Poletes, of St. Paul. He was preceded in death by his first wife, Sally Elaine Poletes.

The memorial service will be held at 7 p.m. Thursday in Frey Theater at the College of St. Catherine, 2004 Randolph Av., St. Paul.

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