There are all sorts of books on how to be an effective leader, but those of us who had the privilege of working with Tom Proehl got to experience a true leader in action every day. Tom’s passing last week has been a shock to arts communities across the country, as we struggle to absorb the loss of a friend, a colleague, and one of the best leaders we had.
Tom’s leadership style was unassuming, sometimes so stealth as to be almost unnoticeable. But his impact was enormous. Tom did not require the limelight (in fact, he avoided it). He was more interested in lifting up the gifts of others, drawing out the skills you didn’t know you had, and connecting people and organizations to the resources they needed. Tom could put you through your paces and demand accountability while simultaneously encouraging you to stretch your creative capacity and dream big. If Tom was on your board, you were lucky to have one of the best stewards you could ask for.
The Playwrights' Center was one of those lucky organizations, as were Signature Theatre and the Foundry Theatre (both in NY). The common thread among these companies was their promotion of the voice of the artist, the creator. This was the work that thrilled Tom. Professionally, he applied that passion to positions with organizations across the state and around the country.
Minnesota, California, and New York have all been professional homes for Tom. After two years in California, he finally had the right reason to return to Minnesota last year (to the great relief of his many, many friends here). The University of Minnesota's Department of Theatre Arts and Dance named him producing director in August, and gave Tom a professional home where he could both teach and administer. After Tom’s funeral last week, a reception at the Rarig Center included a video montage of student testimonials about Tom. It was evident that even in his brief tenure at the U, Tom’s students had connected with the energy, passion, and inspiration that made him special.
Back in California, Tom served as administrative director for American Conservatory Theater (A.C.T.) in San Francisco. In 2008, at the time he and his partner James LL Morrison moved to California, Tom was serving as executive director of the Minnesota State Arts Board. And before that, he held the position through which many of us here in the Twin Cities theater community got to know Tom: He served as managing director at the Guthrie Theater for eight years.
This is where I first knew Tom, when I served on the Guthrie staff. I had a lot to learn about budgets, project management, educational pedagogy, legislative procedure, union contracts, and about 400 other things. Tom was patient but challenging, he always had time, and I know that I am just one of many, many people who would credit Tom as an important mentor in their life.
Tom’s death is an incredibly sad thing for all of us who were his friends and colleagues; I will wrestle with this grief for some time. But, the real sadness is for all of the students at the U who got a glimpse of Tom’s intelligence, warmth, and wanted more but now have to search elsewhere. Those of us who had him in our life for longer will best honor him by aspiring to lead with the grace he showed us every day and reach out to inspire and advocate for the next generation of voices for the theater. Tom would love that (but he wouldn’t want the credit).