By Karen B. Eldridge
Director of news and public information
To honor a woman who loved the arts, loved Maryville College and loved her community, members of the West and Ramsey families have made a $1-million gift to the Civic Arts Center, which will soon be constructed on the Maryville College campus.
For the donation, the stage in the large performance hall will be named for Nita Eckles West, who taught drama and speech at the college for 42 years and is credited for starting the theatre department in 1899.
Donors include Steve West of Maryville, a member of the Maryville College Board of Directors and a great grandson of West; Lynn Ramsey Cole of Knoxville, a 1968 alumnus of the college and granddaughter of the former MC faculty member; great-grandson Dave Ramsey of Nashville, Tenn.; great-granddaughter Lucy West Lee of Lebanon, Tenn.; and great-great grandson Charles West of Maryville.
“Generous gifts like this have special meaning when they come from families of legendary Maryville College figures, and when they come from directors of the college,” said Maryville College President Dr. Gerald W. Gibson. “We accept this donation with gratitude and a promise of responsible stewardship to honor the life and work of someone so instrumental in building the reputation of the fine arts at Maryville College.”
Referring to the fund-raising campaign for the $47-million facility (which now stands at nearly $40 million), the president said that the West and Ramsey family gift is one of several leadership gifts made toward the facility.
“Steve West is also extending his participation in the campaign by encouraging others in the community to get involved, and we appreciate this greatly,” Gibson added.
Steve West said the families’ motivation for the gift was what the Civic Arts Center would mean for the college and what it would mean for the community.
“It was also a natural thing to do because it ties in to Granny,” he added.
Lynn Cole, a granddaughter of West, said, “For Granny to have her name associated with the Civic Arts Center would thrill her to death. She never craved the spotlight, but in a quiet way, she would be thrilled.”
Both said they are looking forward to the CAC’s opening.
“As a teen in 1965, I attended a Chamber of Commerce meeting held at the Capital Theatre, and the topic then was a civic arts center and how we needed one,” Steve remembered. “It came up again, years later, when I was president of the Chamber. In 2005 - 40 years after that first meeting at the Capital Theatre - I was on the Maryville City Council. The college was talking to the cities and county about partnering to build a facility.
“To spend 40 years talking about something … I just thought now it’s time for a civic arts center to be a reality in our community,” Steve said.
The cousins agreed that West would be amazed by the scale and design of the Civic Arts Center.
“To have all of those things - theatres, art galleries, a recital hall, an outdoor arts plaza - in one location and for all the community to be able to enjoy - she would be blown away,” Steve said.
Cole said the larger Blount County population was always a consideration in her grandmother’s productions, even though her crew and cast members were mostly MC students.
“So many of her drama productions were for the community,” she pointed out. “They were big events that the public looked forward to.”
From Mississippi to Maryville
Nita Eckles was born in Carrell, Iowa, in 1877, the second daughter of J.C. Eckles, a Civil War veteran who had fought for the Union forces in the Battle of Vicksburg. In 1883, he returned to Mississippi with his family to live and work. Much of Nita’s childhood was spent in Holly Springs, Miss.
J.C. Eckles was a doctor, a Methodist minister, a school superintendent and later, a postmaster. One of the founding fathers of Wood College, a small Methodist Church-supported school in Mathiston, Miss., Eckles was a strong proponent of education. Leaving Mississippi for Tennessee in the early 1890s, he was, in 1894, named president of Murphy College in Sevierville.
During his three years at the helm of the college that specialized in teacher preparation, Nita earned a bachelor of arts degree. She continued her education at Grant University in Athens, Tenn., earning a bachelor’s degree in oratory.
While at Grant, Nita met Clyde West, another child of a Methodist minister. His family was from Grainger County, but following college, he moved to Blount County, where his brother was farming. Accompanying Clyde in that move was Nita, his new bride.
While Clyde began farming land off of Sevierville Road in 1899, Nita became a member of the Maryville College faculty, hired to head the “Expression Department.” After the introduction of theatre (by a senior class play), she began directing theatrical productions held in Voorhees Chapel or outside.
She chose plays such as “Cyrano de Bergerac” and “Hamlet,” that challenged both her students and herself. “May Day,” one outdoor springtime production, became a favorite of the community, especially school children who, in later years, walked to the amphitheater in the College Woods to watch.
“Granny had the creek in the amphitheater rerouted to create the flat, grassy stage,” Cole explained.
The couple had three children, and West’s 48-year association with the college was only interrupted twice to accommodate pregnancy and her children’s first years. She was gone from the college between 1901 and 1904 and again from 1912 to 1914.
‘A professional woman’
Cole described her grandmother as a “professional woman” who worked hard and had high standards for herself and those around her.
Upon West’s return to the faculty in 1915, she was named head of the Department of Expression and Public Speaking. The program grew under her direction, as did its good reputation, according to historians Arda Walker and Carolyn Blair in their book “By Faith Endowed: The Story of Maryville College, 1819-1994.”
During West’s tenure, the Leland Powers School in Boston, Mass., accepted Maryville credits toward graduation there, “a privilege not extended to any other college at that time,” the historians wrote, adding that in 1927, the college was admitted to membership in the national drama fraternity Theta Alpha Phi, “becoming the only school out of 14 applicants to be admitted during a three-year period.”
As someone who frequently dressed in floral-print dresses, her finest hat and gloves and patent-leather shoes, West paid special attention to cast members’ costumes and took great pride in the costume collection she assembled for the department.
Nearing her 70th birthday, West announced her plans to retire from the college in 1946. By that time, her children were grown, and she was enjoying the company of five grandchildren.
During that year’s commencement ceremony, the administrators of Maryville College broke with custom by allotting time to publicly thank a faculty member for extraordinary service to the college.
Recognizing West, then-president Lloyd pointed out that, at that time, only one other person, President Emeritus Dr. Samuel T. Wilson, had served the college longer. He spent 17 years as professor and 29 years as president.
“No one else so far has remained beyond 40 years,” Lloyd said, adding that she had endeared herself to faculty and staff members and hundreds of graduates during her tenure.
“Mrs. West’s students have always been her friends. When they return, they seek her out for they love her as she loves them,” the president said. “Her standards of work and life are high. She is a Christian in belief, loyalty, ethics and disposition. Not may of us qualify in all of these areas.
“She has done widely recognized work with very limited equipment. This [Voorhees] Chapel is near and dear to the hearts of Maryville College people everywhere; but all know that it was not for theatrical productions, although Mrs. West has staged excellent ones here ever since it was built,” Lloyd continued. “She collected costumes for over a quarter of a century, and then they burned two years ago. Yet her buoyant spirit has enabled her to continue her high quality of work.”
A family legacy
Steve West and Lynn Cole remember visits with their grandmother, who lived within walking distance of their houses. And although West’s service at the college preceded their births, they knew her as a teacher.
“She was forever a teacher,” Cole said. “When I was 5, I was given a ‘Dick and Jane’ book. I already knew how to read because Granny had taught me to read - and to crochet, too - before I went to school.”
The granddaughter also remembers West giving private speech lessons in her home, many to children who were challenged with stuttering.
“A speech therapist - that’s basically what she was,” Steve West said.
She encouraged creativity and clear, articulated speech among her grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
“In my capacity as mayor and a city councilman, I’ve had to give speeches and do a lot of public speaking. Maybe it’s heredity - from Granny - but I’ve never had stage fright, never been at a loss for words,” Steve said, adding that his son majored in speech communication and that his cousin, financial planner Dave Ramsey, has made a living speaking to the masses through his radio show.
Nita West had a radio show, too. Following retirement from Maryville College, she wrote, directed and produced programs on Blount County history for the WGAP radio station. The cousins remember it. And even though listeners couldn’t see the twinkle in her eye, they believe the audience got a sense of her flair, zest for life and love of learning.
Many lessons from “Granny” came simply by observing. Life really was a stage for her, Steve said, and those around her learned from watching.
She held leadership positions at First United Methodist Church in Maryville, participated in the Brown School Community Club and had a love for and dedication to friends and community.
Nita Eckles West died in 1966 at Blount Memorial Hospital. She was 89.
“We inherited from her a spirit of what was right and wrong, how we should act and what we should do for others,” Cole said. “That’s another reason that we wanted to make a gift to the Civic Arts Center - none of us would be what we are today without Granny.”