97 year old Vern Stillwell, who died on January 2, lived a rich life. If one questioned, "What did he do?" The answer would have to be, "What didn't he do?"
Because Vern was a curious person, he was an adventurer, undertaking projects he knew little about. For example, he and his wife, Lyda designed and built their own home without benefit of architects and contractors. One afternoon Vern quietly mused "I am wondering how the Egyptians would do this." He meant it!
Building the home took 10 summers and it was there, in the middle of 85 beautiful acres, that their their love of nature and all living things was nourished. Eventually they travelled many times to far off lands to explore.
Vern enjoyed reciting the beginning phrase of a Shakespearean monologue, "All the world's a stage...and one man in his time plays many roles." Vern played many roles. Born in Joliet, Illinois, he grew up loving horses, owning two or three. During his teenage years, he spent his weekends living at a riding stable, caring for the horses and equipment and teaching Western and English horse back riding through deep, beautiful woods.
After graduating from high school he enlisted in the army and served during WWII. Returning to the states, he taught high school in Holland, Michigan, for 10 years, eventually studying theatre at the University of Michigan, teaching classes, working as a technical director, and earning the PhD. Later, he was hired at Western Michigan University as a theatre professor working as the head set designer and technical director. Before his retirement in 1996, Vern taught theatre history. To help his students understand the relationship between the various world theatre stage spaces and their impact on audiences, he created several free-standing, 3 dimensional stages. Those models remain in the Department of Theater.
Upon retirement he announced that he was going to learn how to play the saxophone and took many lessons from well established local sax players. He commented that it was easy to learn but the challenge was getting good. His interest in sax opened the world of jazz and he and Lyda attended as many jazz programs as possible. Vern also played with various groups, including the Portage Senior Center Band as well as a weekly gig with a dear friend at the Old Dog Tavern.
Vern's artistic abilities were also seen in his writings. He wrote effortlessly, compiling notebooks filled with stories that were true, fanciful, poignant. He also loved song lyrics, writing his favorites and singing them out loud. Recently, at a pawn shop, he purchased a ukulele and was off on yet another artistic adventure.
For over 17 years Vern was a docent at Kalamazoo Air Museum, often leading tours as the dynamic and highly personable "Red Baron." In addition, for a short time he volunteered for the Kalamazoo Literacy Council.
Vern is survived by his wife Lyda. His son Michael died in 2002 and he is survived by Ruth his daughter-in-law and two grand children, Aaron Stillwell and Ashley Stillwell-Hasan (Danish) and four great grandchildren. He is also survived by a step daughter Kay Conklin (Frank).
A private burial will be held at Fort Custer National Cemetery. Memorial contributions may be given to the Kalamazoo Air Zoo , the Kalamazoo Literacy Council and the Audubon Society of Kalamazoo.