Members of the high school and community theater worlds recently came together to pay tribute to Daron Hawkins in the best way they knew how — in song, dance and monologue.
They gathered to pay respects to the Riverview resident who ran the Riverview High theater program since the school opened in 1998, and who this year served as director of Florida State Thespians. Hawkins died Sept. 25 at the age of 38.
On Nov. 24, family, friends and performers gathered in the school’s theater, where Hawkins spent endless hours for countless rehearsals bringing to the stage a wide range of productions.
The program of Love and Laughter: A Celebration of Daron Hawkins noted the 51 shows Hawkins directed and produced for Riverview High and Riverview Little Theatre and in collaboration with other school and community theater troupes. His credits ranged from the wholesome to the raw, including “Chicago,” “Cabaret,” “Evita,” “Godspell,” and “Urinetown.”
Principal Bob Heilmann opened the tribute by asking attendees to sign a petition asking the Hillsborough County School Board to name the school’s theater in his memory.
According to Hawkins’ father, it’s a fitting tribute.
“He loved the theater,” said Barry Hawkins, as hundreds of attendees filed in to take their seats. “I guess it was because he could put his emotions out there more than he would in real life. He found his niche. This is where he loved to be.”
“This is his family,” Hawkins said of the crowd. “He had two families. He had his mommy, daddy, sister, nephew, cousins, aunts and uncles, but his students were his family also. They were a big, big part of his life.”
Serving as production consultants were Omar Montes, Brian Kleinschmidt and his mother, Ellen, a former Hillsborough County music teacher who played leading roles in many Riverview Little Theatre productions.
She said she took to the stage after watching her son perform under Hawkins’ tutelage, because she figured it looked easy enough to try. Her son signed up for Hawkins’ class “to get rid of the dreaded drama credit.” Intent on being a professional athlete, Brian Kleinschmidt said he discovered he could sing and loved to act.
“Who knows what I would be doing if I didn’t do theater,” he said. “I can trace my success all the way back to Daron Hawkins’ class.”
Jas M. Warren Jr. and Lindsay Painter, theater directors at Wharton and Spoto high schools, served as artistic directors. Bev Sutherland, who for years taught music at Bloomingdale and Newsome high schools, served as the vocal director. They all worked with Hawkins on shows throughout the years. Technical directors were former students Stephanie Farina, now a sound engineer at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, and Ryan Owens.
Students current and past talked about their experiences with Hawkins both on stage and off, as a director, teacher, mentor, choreographer and friend. His colleagues, including Riverview band director John Davis, accompanied by choral director Liz Stewart, talked about his passion for his work.
“It’s what community is about,” Ellen Kleinschmidt said. “It’s old people, it’s young people from all walks of life, coming together for a common purpose – to bring joy.”
As she saw it, Hawkins had a talent for “taking normal people and turning them into stars.”
It’s a gift Heilmann said he saw in Hawkins, both as a young student at East Bay and as a seasoned teacher at Riverview. “He left way before his time,” Heilmann said.