Getting Personal: Gregory Chew

Each week, we offer a Q&A with a local personality. Today, Melissa Merli chats with Gregory Chew, 63, who retired after 35 years of teaching English and drama at Urbana High School. He fills his time with volunteer work for the Urbana Public Arts program and with the Illinois High School Theatre Festival.

So ... what's new with you?

I've been renewing contacts with Urbana High School graduates who were active in our theater program — many came back for last year's fundraiser for the high school's renovated auditorium.

On Nov. 30, many of the alumni came back as a support network for me in a warm and nostalgic celebration of our shared over 100 productions on the UHS stage.

Also, I'm in my third and final year working with the state theater festival — last year, I was executive director, but this year, I'm executive director emeritus, a much less stressful gig.

Finally, I have enjoyed being a part of the Urbana Public Arts Commission — I've developed an interest celebrating Joseph Royer's architecture throughout Urbana and have had the opportunity to work with Pat Sammann interviewing local artists on UPTV's cable show "Art Now."

What time do you typically get up? What do you do the first hour of the morning?

It took about a year, but I no longer get up automatically at 6:30 a.m. — now it is more like 8 a.m. My first hour of the day is spent catching up on email and other communications.

What do you consider your greatest achievement or accomplishment?

My years of directing Urbana High School drama were personally and professionally rewarding. Watching my students grow in skills, creativity and confidence is my greatest joy from teaching.

What do you regard as your most treasured possession?

My father's 1967 red Ford Mustang convertible has been a longtime work in progress. I hope to leave it to my son Alex someday, but in good condition. It's currently in pieces, but we have high hopes for the future.

Do you have a guilty pleasure and what is it?

I am fascinated with good used bookstores, and that has led to my large home library and having to find a larger house every 10 years. Otherwise, there's chocolate.

What book are you reading now? What is your favorite book ever?

Right now I'm reading "Anything Goes: A History of American Musical Theatre" by Ethan Mordden. I'm fascinated by the early chapters on how the musical evolved from "The Black Crook" in Lincoln's day through Gilbert & Sullivan and Victor Herbert's operettas. There's rarely a chance to see these performed.

My favorite book (this year) is David Pollock's "Bob and Ray, Keener than Most Persons." I'm a huge fan of their comedy routines and how their radio work transformed later television and movie comedy.

Where on Earth are you dying to go? Why?

I always like to visit Japan. I lived in Japan for two years and find a refinement and simplicity in the aesthetic, and my wife and I like Japanese art in our home.

Tell me about your favorite pet.

My favorite pets were Siamese cats and dachshunds from my childhood (who never got along). Now because of family allergies, I'm relegated to an occasional goldfish.

What's your favorite sports team?

I was born in Detroit and have always followed the Tigers, but as an Illini, I spend more time watching Illinois basketball and football.

What would you order for your last meal?

I'd get carryout from a favorite restaurant in Mexico's Playa del Carmen, specifically, queso fundido with chorizo, preferably eaten next to one of Playa's water-filled sinkholes, a cenote — one without bats.

If you could be reincarnated after you die, what would you like to come back as?

Sea otters seem to enjoy life to the fullest on land and in the water; that looks attractive. Deadlines don't seem to be much of a part of their lives; that looks even more attractive.

Who are your favorite musicians and why?

The Funk Brothers were Detroit session musicians, the in-house band behind the great Motown hits of the 1960s and '70s. They put the hits in Hitsville with the genius of their arrangements and musicianship.

What's the happiest memory of your life?

In 1987, my wife, Debbie, and I had a son, Alex. Our lives changed from that moment. Little did I know while I was typing up a final exam all night at the nurse's station at Carle waiting for him to be born.

If you could host a dinner party with any three living people in the world, whom would you invite? What would you serve?

Neil deGrasse Tyson, NPR's Noah Adams and any of the writers from "The Big Bang Theory." Subject: popular science.

Celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse created a menu for the Shuttle Discovery in 2006. It includes "kicked up" mashed potatoes, jambalaya and bread pudding. We might add cheesecake in deference to the "Big Bang" writer.

Which historical figure do you admire the most and why?

Thanks to Ken Burns, I became a fan of Theodore Roosevelt after I learned what he did for the national parks movement. This is why he is on Mount Rushmore and why our national parks were protected from the fate of Niagara Falls.

What personality trait do you most hate in other people? Most hate in yourself?

I don't have much patience with pretentiousness or affectation. My own most frustrating trait is procrastination, but I'm going to work on that someday.

What's your best piece of advice?

Before you enter into a conflict, make sure you know what a win looks like.

What was your first job and how much did you make an hour?

First non-paperboy job was at 14 as stocking clerk at a grocery store, for 65 cents an hour. This was a big raise over my previous allowance, however.

What was a pivotal decision in your career and how did you arrive at that decision?

I changed from a science major to an English major when I realized I didn't enjoy lab work and was hanging around browsing the university Library. I student-taught at Urbana High School and was offered a position three months later.

Do you have any regrets in your life? What are they?

I would have loved to live for a year in London or New York City. But I try to make up for that by visiting.

How do you handle a stressful situation?

I get calmer and focus on problem-solving. Stress actually brings out creativity for me and a rush of adrenaline. Maybe that's behind my procrastination issues?

 

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