UB theater community remembers late professor, director, actor and friend Gerald Finnegan
“I didn’t go to the moon. I went much further.”
Gerald, or Jerry, Finnegan would start his theatre classes at the beginning of each year by having his students recite this line from the memory play, “The Glass Menagerie.”
The line comes from character Tom Wingfield, a shoe factory worker who doubles as an aspiring poet trying to escape from reality. The character recites these lines at the end of the play, as his older self, narrating events which he lived through.
Former students believed the quote embodied Finnegan, who died on Aug. 25 at age 70. He served UB Theatre and Dance for 34 years as a professor and a director of over 20 theater productions. Outside of UB, Finnegan acted professionally on stage both locally and internationally. Although he left it all on the stage, he also left a legacy for those he taught and worked with.
Michael Formato, theatre and dance production manager, remembers Finnegan as a friend and colleague, who he worked with for 25 years.
Formato met Finnegan, who he calls “Jerry,” during his first semester at UB while Finnegan was directing the play “Brilliant Traces” for the Center for the Arts in October 1994.
The opening scene of the play featured a character distressed and “pleading for help.” Finnegan knew what to do with then-student and current faculty member Kathleen Golde as she practiced for this role.
“As an acting exercise, Jerry had her go into the hallway and plead to be let in a door. Hearing this at about 8:30p.m., I rushed from my office to help the ‘distressed’ person – only to find out it was (very good) acting,” Formato wrote in an email.
Formato and Finnegan’s friendship only grew from there.
Formato recalled his hip replacement years ago. He was recovered enough to go to work, but was unable to one morning due to snow in his driveway. He called his department to let them know he couldn’t make it to school that day.
But someone was listening.
“That evening, a cold and blustery winter evening, I heard shoveling outside my home. There was Jerry, completely unannounced and unrequested, shoveling my property. Well, that’s the kind of guy he was,” Formato wrote.
Although Finnegan would help a coworker in need, teaching was still his job. His students “meant the world” to him, according to adjunct acting instructor Gregory Natale.
Natale acted with Finnegan in Shakespeare in Delaware Park in the early ‘80s, and the two joined forces in the theatre department 19 years ago. Natale appreciated his coworker’s “playful” speech that included “double meanings, observations of human behavior and situational awareness.”
He emphasized Finnegan’s connection to his students.
“Jerry was absolutely passionate about passing on his knowledge and experience to [students]. His early years as a struggling actor showed him just how difficult it is to make it as an actor. Jerry wanted his students to both understand this, and then to train with everything they had to give in order to be as prepared as possible to enter into the actor’s life of highs and lows,” Natale wrote in an email.
The lessons Finnegan taught his students still stick.
Jennifer Michelle, an ‘11 alum, learned from Finnegan in both his “poetic text” class and when he directed her in “Crimes of the Heart.” She fondly remembers her professor in a plaid shirt and black leather vest, chewing nicotine gum with coffee in hand and was never afraid to think outside of the box.
“[He] was extremely passionate about his craft and wholly believed in the potential of his students. Gerry's acting style and general feelings about life were all about going back to a childlike imagination; completely open, free and not second guessing yourself,” Michelle wrote through Facebook.
But just eight days before he passed away, Finnegan retired from his position at UB.
Formato believed that Finnegan saw sharing his passion of acting with students as his purpose on Earth.
“As his health declined in the past few years, many would have retired – not Jerry Finnegan,” Formato said. “It was not until very close to his last gasp of mortal air would he agree to not be there for his students”
Finnegan didn’t go to the moon for his students. He went much further.
Finnegan will be remembered during his wake on Sept. 7 and memorial service on Sept. 8 at Dengler, Roberts, Perna Funeral Home.
Brenton Blanchet is the managing editor and can be reached at Brenton.Blanchet@ubspectrum.com and on Twitter @BrentBlanchSpec