By John Ike Smith-Schoenwalder
Leon’s very own drama and English teacher Rod Durham has died in his sleep at 52 years old. He was found by housekeepers in his hotel room in Fort Lauderdale, where, according to a friend, he was relaxing on spring break.
“He was the perfect example of a teacher where you can’t describe their impact on students by test scores,” principal Billy Epting said Monday afternoon. “He had a personality and a character that was more than teaching drama or English in the classroom. Students could have a personal and professional relationship with him about life and being a good person.”
Recently, class of 1982 Leon alum Durham was featured on the Extreme Makeover: Weight Loss television show. He burned 188 pounds, and described the transformation as not only a physical one, but also one of the “heart and brain.”
He directed numerous summer plays at Leon and was well-known in the Tallahassee theater community. A fellow 1982 graduate, former principal Rocky Hanna knew him for over 35 years. According to Hanna, Durham won the senior class’ “True Gentleman” award.
“There are a lot of broken hearts in our community today,” Hanna said. “People like Rod Durham come around once in a lifetime.
“His smile, his heart, his demeanor… Even if you were having a bad day, being around [Durham] would make it better. His laugh was infectious. He was literally larger than life.”
One of Hanna’s fondest memories with Durham was driving down to see him and the drama department perform the fall production, “13: The Musical,” at the 2011 Florida State Thespian Festival.
“Kids wanted to perform for him,” Hanna said. “He was their coach and mentor, and got the best out of the kids that trained with him. He was all about those relationships. He would give money out of his pocket to help them, or anyone, financially – he would do whatever he could.”
Durham has also been directing the black history assembly since 2001 with the help of performing arts teachers, including dance teacher Millie Seckel.
“We were peanut butter and jelly,” Seckel said. “And I’m missing peanut butter in my sandwich right now.
“I don’t have a [biological] brother, but I lost my brother. That laughter? You could hear it all the way down the hallway.”
Seckel and Durham worked with Thespians for 12 years together.
“Anything we put our hands on together became gold. With him, ‘you’ were the most important thing. He was our anchor and he passed his love along to everyone.”
2014 alum Fletcher Grussing was taught by Durham and believed his character had the greatest impact on those with whom he worked.
“He introduced the magic of theater to me,” Grussing said, “but he also imparted more than just his passion for the stage. Durham exemplified a pure soul and shared his benevolence with everyone around him. I will always be grateful for the profound influence that Rod Durham has had on my life.
“His contagious kindness and guidance is inconceivable and will be remembered, as well as celebrated.”
Epting also saw this sincere character of Durham and noted Durham’s effect on him.
“I’ve worked with Mr. Durham for ten years,” Epting said, “and there were times I wanted to choke him, and there were times I wanted to give him a big hug.
“Something I’ll never ever forget is that laugh of his. You can’t stay mad when you’re around him, and he always had a smile on his face.”
This article will be updated with more information as it is released.