E.C. Glass High School’s longtime director of drama, Jim Ackley, will retire at the end of the school year after 36 years of teaching.
His career includes 32 years as the school’s drama director and leading more than 150 productions.
He said his decision partly was motivated by budget cuts that will reduce the school’s drama staff from three teachers to two next year.
“I’ve been thinking about it for most of the year, but I swore I wasn’t going to make the decision until the absolute last minute,” he said. “When they did the budget cut, it just seemed to be the only logical way for us to do this because we were going to lose a position. It’s better to lose the person who’s got one foot out the door anyway.”
During his tenure, Ackley has seen many of his former students go on to pursue careers in the arts, including actors like “Friday Night Lights” star Connie Britton, Tony Award-winning Broadway vet Faith Prince and current “2 Broke Girls” star Beth Behrs.
Ackley’s announcement marks the third high-profile staffing change at E.C. Glass this year.
In March, Principal Kevin Latham was tapped as Lynchburg City Schools’ new director of secondary education, a position he starts this summer. A month later, band director Larry Seipp announced he would be leaving to work at Liberty Christian Academy next year.
“I understand the situation,” Ackley said of the budget cuts that will eliminate 42 positions from Lynchburg City Schools.
“The school board, or the school system, has been as supportive as they could be of our program for as long as they could. There was nowhere else to cut, and I think this shows the people of the city just how underfunded the school system is. Because this is one of the programs that the city is always pointing to as being something very special.”
Ackley said he’s sad to be leaving but proud of his time with the school.
“I’ve had a great 32 years here. I am as happy and excited about what I’ve been doing this year as I was my first year, and I think that’s the way it’s supposed to be,” he said. “I’m certainly going to miss the kids, and I’m going to miss the people I’ve been working with here at Glass. It’s a great school. But I think it’s best for the program and best for me to let somebody else have that fun.”
That will fall to longtime drama teachers Tom Harris, a former Ackley student who has worked in the department for 17 years, and JD Stallings, who joined the staff as technical director seven years ago.
“I’m very hopeful that the program will not miss a beat,” Ackley said. “And I don’t think that it will.”
It’s a program Ackley, a Lynchburg native and Glass graduate, built from the ground up.
He joined the faculty of his alma mater in 1980 — after three years writing and editing for the Winchester Star newspaper and four years teaching at John Marshall High School in Richmond — and spent much of the 1980s and early 1990s as a one-man band.
He directed all the plays, built the sets, and even made the costumes. At the time, there was just one drama class, two productions a year and only about 20 students actively involved in the program.
Today, there are 12 drama classes at E.C. Glass. The department usually puts on five shows, including one big musical every season, and has consistently won regional and state theater competitions for its one-act plays.
“He put high school drama on the map in Lynchburg,” said Spence White, a former student and professional actor who now runs the drama program at Jefferson Forest High School. “What you’ve got at Glass is a program that’s bigger than a lot of college programs.”
White said he never would have considered pursuing theater in college if it hadn’t been for Ackley.
“As far as I was concerned, that wasn’t really an option. I didn’t even know it was something you could major in,” said White, who graduated from Glass in 1986. “But he’s very aggressive about saying, ‘You’re good. I can see you enjoy this. You need to be a theater major.’ So that’s what I did, and it affected my whole life.”
In 2004, Connie Britton, who will star in the new ABC drama “Nashville” next fall, told The News & Advance that Ackley had a similar influence on her.
“He really created such an amazing program, made it fun but also challenging and something that people really wanted to be a part of,” she said. “[But] we had the feeling we could go beyond that. That is a really important aspect as far as moving beyond your hometown to do things out in the world.”
Ackley said he’s proud the program has produced so many arts professionals. But he’s just as concerned with producing good people.
“I’m really proud that the program has helped young people find success and accomplishments not only as actors or technicians but in all walks of life,” he said. “I think the lessons we teach are lessons that apply throughout life, and I think that our kids buy into that and understand that.”
So what’s next for Ackley?
He doesn’t have any specific plans just yet —“I’m still working here until June 8, so that’s where my focus is” — but said he has talked to some people about doing some directing in town.
He’ll also be on call if Harris, Stallings or any of the students need him.
“The kids, I think, are already looking ahead, and they’re talking about how they’re going to make things work [next year],” he said. “I made it very clear to them that I wasn’t leaving Lynchburg, and that I was always going to be around for them.”
In the meantime, though, the show will go on.
“That’s the way theater operates,” he said. “A show closes and another one opens, and that’s kind of the way I’ve taught the kids to look at things. We don’t dwell on it.”