Alison Van Dyke, retired senior lecturer of performing and media arts and an integral part of the Cornell Prison Education Program, died in London on Oct. 5, while on a trip to Spain, France and England. She was 79.
In an email to faculty, performing and media arts professors Sara Warner and Amy Villarejo wrote that Van Dyke’s “grace, beauty, and elegance inspired us all, as did her care for the vulnerable, political compass, devotion to family and friends, and insistence on putting students first. Our hearts are saddened by this loss.”
“She was a superb listener and seemed to always have an original and insightful response, no matter the question. Knowing her and receiving her wisdom was a life evolving experience for me,” said Bruce Levitt, professor of performing and media arts.
Van Dyke began as a part-time lecturer at Cornell in 1977, becoming full-time the following year. In 1985 she was promoted to senior lecturer; she retired in 2014. For her 37 years at Cornell, she taught advanced acting techniques and performance speech and dialects. “Her students adored her and she continued to support many of them with her friendship and insights well past their graduations,” said Levitt.
“We were awed by the fierce work she undertook on behalf of those who needed it. What was a miracle about her was how much she loved us in turn, each for our own souls and spirits,” said Villarejo, Frederic J. Whiton Professor of Humanities.
In addition to serving as supervisor of the Resident Performing Theatre Artist-taught classes, Van Dyke took over as director of undergraduate services for all department majors in fall 2010. She also served as acting co-chair of the committee planning the department's new curriculum in 2011. In 2012 she received the Robert A. and Donna B. Paul Academic Advising Award from the College of Arts and Sciences, given to honor undergraduate advisers who make a difference in the lives of their Cornell students.
Barrie Kreinik '07, said that the skills she learned from Van Dyke in her dialect classes were “life-changing.” Maria Dizzia ’98, nominated for a 2010 Tony Award and a 2013 Drama Desk Award, told American Theatre magazine that having Van Dyke as a student advisor had a tremendous impact on her. “She treated me like an artist and that meant so much to me,” said Dizzia.
Following the death of her second husband, architect William Downing, in 2011, Van Dyke oversaw the running of Dewitt Mall. She was a welcome regular in the shops and restaurants, and contributed to downtown life as a patron of the performing arts.
“Alison’s generosity of spirit, empathy and fairmindedness extended to colleagues, staff, and students throughout the university, to the larger Ithaca community, to her innumerable friends including, notably, the most vulnerable among us,” said Mary Katzenstein, Stephen and Evalyn Milman Professor of American Studies, Emerita, who worked with Van Dyke in the Cornell Prison Education Program (CPEP), for which Van Dyke served on the board.
“She was the type of person we all wish we were surrounded with. Life would be so much kinder,” wrote Ray Roe, a CPEP alum. Darryl Epps, another alum of CPEP, said of Van Dyke that “her presence, fortitude, grace and amazing heart will always light my days, warm my heart, and inspire me to maximize my potential to enrich the lives of others.”
In 2011 Van Dyke became a facilitator with the Phoenix Players Theatre Group (PPTG) at Auburn Correctional Facility and was often heard to remark that next to her family, the Phoenix Players were the most important thing in her life. Once she retired from Cornell, she attended PPTG’s weekly meetings every Friday night, working ultimately with four generations of the group’s members. According to Levitt, one of PPTG’s facilitators, her compassion for the men of the Phoenix Players was instrumental to the group’s cohesion and success.
Kyri Murdough, CPEP coordinator at Auburn, described Van Dyke as “the type of person of whom you ask a room of her friends who was closest and everyone would think that title applied to them.”
PPTG member Adam Roberts said Van Dyke was “the one who could make things better with her presence and her words...seemingly unflappable, [she was] full of grace and wit and charm and panache. Utterly lacking in guile, gifted with tact, Alison was that rare gem of a friend who could be counted on to add depth to any conversation she touched, insight into any matter, and, I think, most importantly, dispense sound advice.”
Van Dyke is survived by her two children, Jason Shank and Melissa Pruitt, and two grandchildren, as well as two brothers, Murray Van Dyke and Neil Van Dyke; she is predeceased by a third brother, Peter Van Dyke.