Life Remembered: UHS drama teacher made his mark by encouraging
CHAMPAIGN — As an Urbana High School drama student, Zoe Stinson preferred being backstage. But drama director Gregory Chew wanted everyone to experience being on stage.
So he talked Stinson into trying out for "The King and I." She ended up having so much fun in the chorus that she tried out for and landed in the chorus of "Cabaret."
Stinson, who graduated in 2001, is one of countless Urbana High alumni who are remembering and paying tribute to Mr. Chew, who died at 7:32 p.m. Wednesday at his home in Champaign. Funeral arrangements were incomplete at Morgan Memorial Home, 1304 Regency Drive West, Savoy.
Mr. Chew spent his entire teaching career at Urbana High School, starting three months after he had finished student teaching there. He retired in 2010, after having taught English and drama for 35 years.
Last fall, school board President John Dimit noted that Mr. Chew's influence led many alumni to work in show business in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, as well as in community theater productions nationwide.
Besides encouraging his students, Mr. Chew provided them with a comfortable environment in which to grow as thespians and people, said Urbana alumnus Max Tomaszewski, who is active now in community theater.
Stinson remembered how Mr. Chew trusted his students to put on plays, use tools to build sets and let their creativity fly.
And even though he worked hard and was "very involved" in theater, never wanting to do the same play twice, he was laidback and easygoing, she said.
"Those plays and everything can be very stressful," Stinson remembered. "He always stayed calm. He was always great to work with."
Stinson, now acting director of the Orpheum Children's Science Museum, said high school is hard for most students but that Mr. Chew eased the pain.
"Drama is a great place to escape and meet people and create lasting friendships," she said. "He was important in that."
In a News-Gazette "Getting Personal" interview published in late 2013, Mr. Chew said watching his students grow in skills, creativity and confidence was the greatest joy he derived from teaching. Teaching, he added, was his greatest accomplishment.
He had almost become a scientist — first majoring in science but switching to English when he realized he didn't enjoy lab work and was hanging around the library a little too much.
Even after he retired four years ago, Mr. Chew remained active at the high school and in the community.
He was a commissioner on the Urbana Public Arts Commission — his term ends next year.
And in 2012, Mr. Chew was executive director of the Illinois High School Theatre Festival, a massive undertaking.
In October, the Urbana school board honored him by dedicating the high school theater's state-of-the art sound and light control booth to Mr. Chew. He had helped plan the redesign and renovations of the theater.
"It's quite an honor," Mr. Chew said then. "But the real honor was the 35 years I got to do plays and musicals in Urbana, with all the students over the years."
Tim Broeker, who succeeded Mr. Chew as director of theater at Urbana High, said even students who never had Mr. Chew as a teacher knew who he was.
"He has really built and established the program we have today," Broeker said in October. "He really is Urbana drama, when you think of it."