Konrad Winters, professor emeritus in Old Dominion University's Communication and Theatre Arts Department who was renowned for his innovative set design, mentorship to students and envisioning the University's film program, passed away Feb. 10. Winters, a professor at ODU for more than 30 years, was 71.
Winters joined ODU in 1986 as an assistant professor of theatre and was well-known in the theatre and film community, developing the original 18 courses in the University's film program. He also helped build the theatre program with creative scholarship that explored the nature of the environmental space in theatrical production, storytelling and the inclusion of new technologies. His research resulted in 63 scenic designs, 30 lighting designs, more than 35 short films and 36 conference presentations.
He built the scenic studio in the Stables Theatre, which was the home of the University's theatre department for more than 20 years, by hand with his design, carpentry and construction skills.
But his professional accomplishments were only part of what many remember him for; more than anything, he was a mentor and a friend, said Katherine Hammond, associate professor of theatre and associate chair in the Department of Communication and Theatre Arts.
"It is impossible to express the impact Konrad Winters had on the community - on the thousands of students whose lives were touched by his mentorship, on the colleagues he challenged to be their best. Konrad was the embodiment of what I aspire to be - a giving, loving person who has strong, voiced beliefs," Hammond said. "Today, as I look through the myriad of Facebook tributes, one thing stands out - Konrad made an indelible mark on our lives. We are grateful to call him our friend."
In the days since he passed, students have shared messages in person and online memorializing their longtime professor. Noelle Peterson, a theatre performance major, said Winters always believed in her.
"When I first met Konrad, it was when I auditioned for the fall play in 2014: 'Five Women Wearing the Same Dress.' I had only done musicals up to that point. Konrad believed in me; he wanted me to study acting in London," Peterson said. "London didn't happen, but I got to work in two beautiful shows with him. He listened to his actors and their ideas. He trusted them. And I am forever grateful."
Alumni have also been posting memorial messages for Winters. John Dixon called him a friend as well as a teacher.
"Today my heart is heavy as I say goodbye to one of the greatest people I have ever known: Konrad Winters," Dixon wrote. "Konrad was more than a teacher to me...he was (along with [wife] Angie and [son] Sam) my family. He taught me how to be a better actor, a better designer, and a better collaborator. But most importantly, he taught me how to be a better human being."
Winters is survived by his wife Angela and son Sam, both alumni of the school and members of the ODU and Hampton Roads theatre community. Winters was "incredibly proud" of his son, who works at WAVY-TV and was recently nominated for an Emmy, Hammond said.
Another of Winters' former students, Alba Woolard, called Winters a "a multifaceted artist," "inspiring" and "supportive," and said he directed unforgettable shows.
"The world lost an inspiring teacher artist, and friend," Woolard said. "Konrad Winters was a wonderful man to know - tough exterior with a soft heart. I was grateful to learn from him while I was at ODU. Konrad had an incredible love for the craft, which showed in every element of his work. I was fortunate enough to get to play in his beautiful set designs, which brought so much life to the stage."
Alumna Jill Manning expressed similar sentiments, calling Winters "a bright light" for the world, and recalled fond memories of his teaching.
"He always had the perfect balance between gruff exterior and squishy marshmallow. He made an entire generation of kids feel loved and seen and valued," Manning said. "I wonder how many lives he touched - I bet we couldn't even wager a guess. I also wondered why he continued to tolerate me after he told me not to take my hand off the saw in scenery class and guess what, I took my hand off. Wood shooting across the scene shop and my brilliant professor there, just standing there smiling and shaking his head. Thanks for the memories, Konrad. We didn't deserve you, but oh, how grateful we are to have had you anyway."
Winters received a B.S. in education from Concordia Teachers College, an M.S. in theatre and an M.F.A in scenic design from Illinois State University. At ODU, he became an associate professor in 1992 and served as chief departmental advisor for the theatre program from 2015 to 2017; director of technical production for theatre and film from 2007 to 2011; director of film and video studies from 2001 to 2007, and director of technical production for theatre from 1987 to 2007.
The department will be establishing a scholarship in Winters' honor for scenic design students.
He also served in the Hampton Roads community and beyond as a consultant for many arts organizations, including the Attucks Theatre, Governor's School for the Arts, Harrison Opera House, Virginia Waterfront Arts Festival, Virginia Ballet Theatre, Contemporary Ballet Theatre, Push Comedy Theatre and Virginia Public Schools. Additionally, he was elected to the National Board of Directors and as a national commissioner for education for the United States Institute of Theatre Technology.
Katherine Hammond contributed to this story.