Frank Southerington did not want a funeral. For those who knew him, the only appropriate way to say goodbye was to celebrate his life with a big party at his home near Mary Baldwin College. And so hundreds gathered on August 23 at an event that harkened back to so many gatherings in previous years — the “Southerington salons” and legendary Christmas parties.
The professor emeritus of English passed away August 15, surrounded by family. He retired in 2007 after 39 years at the college, capping his 45-year academic career with six years as co-founder, director, and professor in the graduate Shakespeare and Performance program. Southerington, who was married to Professor of Theatre Terry Southerington ’72, continued to teach and direct MBC theatre productions as recently as last school year.
As news of Southerington’s death spread — whether on social media, at the party celebrating his life, or on stage at the Oak Grove Theater in Verona where he spent countless hours — friends shared their memories of the Abbotsbury, England, native and a picture emerged of an unforgettable educator and theatre buff with a no-nonsense style, kindness, and humor.
Describing Southerington is not easy, said brother-in-law and MBC Technical Director for Theatre Sam Koogler. He noted the educator’s brilliance as a researcher and writer, who penned several volumes on the works and thoughts of Thomas Hardy as well as a biography of Swedish writer and artist August Strindberg.
“He … truly cared about people,” Koogler said. “Notwithstanding, he did not tolerate fools and those who took advantage of others. He was fun to work with and was always willing to work other’s ideas into his shows. As a matter of fact, one of his favorite sayings was ‘I like that … leave it in.’ He had a mischievous quality and many times as I’d stop in he’d yell ‘bugger off’ with a twinkle in his eye and a grin on his mouth — a trait, I have learned from his daughter, Anna, that he got from his father — only in fun and with an immediate offer of something to drink. I’d give anything to hear him say it again.”
Southerington was the first person Professor of English Sarah Kennedy met in the department, and he left a lasting impression.
“He was a gracious host when I came here to visit and remained a dear and trusted colleague in all the years I knew him,” Kennedy said. “I always valued his wry wit, his high standards, and his willingness to help me as a junior faculty member. I took over teaching Shakespeare when he retired, and I will always remember the ways he combined his love of both literature and theatre in the classroom. The plays that he directed and performed in were instrumental to my own change in teaching style from mostly lecture to performance. The students learn so much more when they get on their feet and act out the plays — and I learned how to do that from Frank Southerington.”
“Frank was a big part of my MBC life from freshman year, 1976 when I was in the Honor Scholars seminar with him,” said Ann Merrill Gray ’80, who graduated as an English and Spanish double major. “I had many classes with Frank, was in a play or two, and spent countless hours enjoying his and Terry’s hospitality in their home. He was a wonderful teacher and friend.”
Scores of alumnae used the college’s Facebook page as a way to share their condolences and memories of the professor, including Colleen Carrigan ’89.
“As an English and theatre major I was greatly influenced by Frank in my undergraduate years,” Carrigan wrote. “I am a journal editor, and I keep my old Victorian and Romantic literature textbooks in the bookcase behind my desk in my office. When I’m on deadline and I’m feeling overwhelmed, I sometimes read Swinburne or Wordsworth. It reminds me of why I chose to work in publishing; the transcendence that comes from losing oneself in the beauty of perfectly arranged words on paper is a lifelong passion (and obsession). In 1989, Frank had already been teaching for many years, but his enthusiasm and love for his subject matter never left him, and I understand this now more than I did as his student.”
Southerington knew language — how it works on the page and on the stage — and he never stopped insisting that his students make sense of literature as a working language, Kennedy said.
“He was rigorous,” she said. “But he always tempered that toughness with a true compassion. His students were dedicated to his courses and to him, and his colleagues respected and liked him.”
Koogler recalled Southerington’s honesty and ability to look beyond the surface of both colleagues and students.
“[He] always wanted them to do the very best they could and help them achieve that goal while remaining a bright spot in their lives rather than a taskmaster,” Koogler said.
Southerington earned his bachelor of arts at University College London and his MLitt/DPhil at Magdalen College at Oxford University. He taught English literature in Sweden and Finland before coming to the United States.
Before joining the faculty at MBC, Southerington taught Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton at the University of North Carolina. In 1998, he appeared in Boys on the Bridge, a film written and produced by MBC Sociology Professor John Wells. He is immortalized by his daughter, Jennifer, on a mural in Wenger Hall on campus. He donated to Mary Baldwin through the Koogler Charitable Trust.
Southerington’s final on-stage performance was as Beverly Weston in Ampersand Arts’ production of Tracy Lett’s August: Osage County.
In memory of the avid rose gardener, loved ones planted a pink Queen Elizabeth variety on campus in the garden at Rose Terrace. In addition to his wife, Southerington is survived by sons Tom and Paul; daughters Anna, Jennifer, and Margaret; sister Margaret; and extended family.