Artist, Actor, Alumnae, Generous Spirit
If, as Shakespeare tells us, action is eloquence then Michelle McGowan’s life is indeed a most eloquent story. The record of Michelle’s service to the arts and to her community beggars imagination and has left its mark on the lives of tens of thousands. Michelle’s story is the story of a woman so awake to the God of possibilities and to the divine presence found in creative expression and love of neighbor that she is driven to act.
Michelle has devoted her life to the theater, participating in 2,061 stage shows—the equivalent of one show every day over six and a half years. Michelle began in theater over 40 years ago in the inaugural season of the Cresson Lake Playhouse, where she has appeared in 68 productions and worked another 40 as costumer—her other great talent. Michelle also has a 30-year association with the Altoona Community Theater, where she has acted in 120 shows, costumed 176, and directed another 48. To that body of work can be added a dozen productions with the Tyrone Community Theater and three dozen more, over eight years, with the Jennerstown Professional Theater.
In her theater life, Michelle has played nearly as many roles behind the curtain as in front. Not only is she an accomplished director, and one of the region’s top costumers, but Michelle has also served as writer, choreographer, make-up artist, as well as lighting, prop, and set designer. In all these ways Michelle has employed her creative gifts to the joy and wonder of her audiences. And those who know Michelle’s great-spirited generosity will know that there is no theater large enough to contain her passion for sharing life’s possibilities. It is that passion that has made her an important actor outside the theater, in the lives of her neighbors and in the life of the community.
Michelle takes her creative gifts to the community for the benefit of her neighbors by singing with the Altoona and the Johnstown Symphony Choruses and working with area choirs, by running summer theater workshops for children, by offering costuming workshops for local and regional groups, and by visiting area senior centers. For 14 years she has run the children’s performance venue at the Blair County Arts Festival, and conducted fundraising efforts in support of the Children’s Museum of Altoona, the Southern Allegheny Arts Museum, the Hollidaysburg YMCA, local veterans’ organizations, community theaters, and food pantries. For all these community efforts Michelle was honored with the Wise Women of Blair County’s 2007 Arts and Letters award.
Michelle’s passionate faith in possibilities inspires her belief that lives can be transformed not just through the magic of theater but through a loving commitment to neighbors. Michelle was involved in the first Headstart program in Cambria County, taught kindergarten at St. Francis Xavier elementary school in Cresson for 16 years, was a Girl Scout leader, worked with the area’s first Upward Bound program, and served seven years on our Mount Aloysius Alumni Executive Board. Michelle’s work as a volunteer for the non-profit American Rescue Workers led to her present position as the group’s Public Relations Director, promoting their efforts to provide food, clothing, furniture and emergency energy assistance to those in need.
This commitment to the service of others has truly been a hallmark of Michelle’s life and goes back to early days in her family. Michelle’s father died when she was young, leaving her mother to take a job as a second-shift factory worker. This was possible because she trusted Michelle to take care of her siblings. When Michelle graduated from high school, new horizons opened for her when the FBI selected her and two other women to train to be the first female agents in agency history. At the end of an exciting year living and working in Washington, Michelle’s mother died. Michelle gave up her new life, returned home and assumed the role of surrogate mother to her five siblings for the next nine years.
Of course, no telling of Michelle’s life would be complete without mention of the Mount Aloysius Madrigal Christmas Feaste and the 40-year reign of Michelle’s inspired creation, Ladye Misrule; it is appropriately a story about the giving of gifts, a story of one door opening after another has closed. Sister Eric Marie Setlock, RSM the founder of Madrigal and Director of the Music program at the College, heard Michelle singing in the very first production at Cresson Lake Playhouse. She offered Michelle vocal training and music classes; she also arranged for her to enter the College and inspired her to reach beyond her situation. Thus began Michelle’s life-changing collaboration with the woman she considers not simply her mentor but a second mother. And for four decades Michelle has given gifts of her own in return. She has been the heart of the Madrigal since taking the reins from Sister Eric Marie, performing as a singer, a fool, and Ladye Misrule, the mistress of mirth. Behind the scenes she writes and directs the shows and serves as costumer-in-chief. Under Michelle’s leadership the Madrigal has become a signature cultural event in the region.
Let us close with another quote from Shakespeare, one that captures Michelle’s faith in life’s possibilities and describes so well the gift she gives others through her art and service: “Let the coming hour overflow with joy, and let pleasure drown the brim.” Michelle McGowan, for that gift so generously shared, Mount Aloysius College proudly confers upon you now the degree of Doctor of Humane Letters, honoris causa, this Tenth day of May Two Thousand and Fourteen.