Students recall H. Russell ‘Coach’ Carter, beloved Janesville teacher
JANESVILLE Russell “Coach” Carter was one of those teachers students don’t forget.
Or maybe he was even more than that.
How often do you hear of former students and friends putting together a performance to remember a teacher when he dies?
H. Russell Carter was 79 when he died Jan. 19 in St. Louis, the city of his birth. A memorial service is planned in Janesville on Feb. 17. It will ring with songs from the musical theater.
Carter was the drama teacher and show director at Janesville High School—later Craig High School—from 1961 to 1988.
When word of his death filtered out to former students, they called Elsie Van Tassell, who worked with Carter on many high school and community productions.
“It’s wonderful. People are calling, wanting to do something,” Van Tassell said.
People suggested singing songs they sang in Carter’s productions.
“I thought, ‘What a wonderful idea. I’m sure Russ would just love that,’” Van Tassell said.
“He was sort of an inspiration in Janesville. He did plays nobody did and exposed the high school kids to things nobody did before,” Van Tassell said.
Carter touched his students’ lives.
“One boy told me he had problems at home, and he doesn’t know how he would’ve gotten through it all without Russ,” Van Tassell said.
Tom Dorsey, Class of 1981, recalled Carter would take students to the Shakespeare festival in Stratford, Ontario, each year. Dorsey was lucky enough to meet famed actor Maggie Smith.
Carter’s shows were so well done that they didn’t seem like high school shows, Dorsey said, but what he taught was not just stagecraft.
“He was able to give us something we could take off stage and use in our personal lives, whether that be how to talk in front of people or how to carry yourself as a professional,” Dorsey said.
Mark Trevor Ranum, Class of 1979, has done some professional theater work as well as amateur work after high school.
Ranum said he often is complimented on his professionalism and diction on stage, and he said he learned it from Carter.
Carter chose difficult material for his students, Ranum recalled, including Shakespeare, Eugene O’Neill and Gilbert and Sullivan.
“Those were marvelous opportunities, the chance to do some of these quality writers at that young age,” Ranum said.
Peter Tropp, Class of 1975, said everyone called Carter “Coach.”
He coached his students to speak and to sing on stage, and he wore a coach’s whistle—using it to get students’ attention, Tropp said.
Carter was beloved, and he had a great sense of humor, but he was serious about his shows, where he strove for perfection. He had high standards in his classes, where those who thought they could get the easy “A” were quickly disappointed, Tropp said.
“He took it very serious, and if you did what you were supposed to and worked hard for him, he worked hard for you,” Tropp said.
Carter took a group of students to a theater conference in a station wagon one year, and on the way back he took them to a national tour production of “Pippin,” Tropp recalled. Carter paid for everyone’s ticket.
“It was incredible. That’s how he was,” Tropp said.
Tropp recalled that Carter did not want students to present him with flowers at curtain call of the final show. He thought it unprofessional.
“All he wanted was a good show,” Tropp said.
Carter never married. Tropp said he was married to theater. Van Tassell said women got tired of waiting for him as he spent countless hours working on his shows.
“He loved Janesville,” Van Tassell said, “and when he was here, he gave so much.”
Carter moved to his hometown after he retired, but he stayed in touch and visited.
Van Tassell said he helped her with ideas for the plays she directed. He designed the set for the upcoming “Death of a Salesman,” which opens Feb. 21 at the Janesville Performing Arts Center.
Van Tassell said Carter will be credited in the program, and she is dedicating the show to him.
If you go
What: Memorial service for H. Russell Carter
When: 2 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 17.
Where: Cargill United Methodist Church, 2000 Wesley Ave., Janesville.