Danville man credits high school teacher with success in playwriting

October 02, 2003|JENNIFER BRUMMETT

Roy Milburn of Danville had an unusual interest as a student in the Boyle County school system years ago. Sure, he liked to play ball and swim in the quarry with his friends as well as do all the things teenage boys like to do. But he also was fascinated with playwriting.

"One time, (the late) Dr. (Paul) Cantrell (a former English professor at Centre College) came out and talked to us," said Milburn, remembering back almost 40 years to the month. "And I thought then I would like to write a play.

"I talked to another person, a teacher, and she said, 'You're from Perryville - you need to do things that boys from Perryville do.' I told Mrs. (Jacqueline) Cantrell that, and she said it was nonsense. 'Sure, you can write a play,' she said. 'I'll help you.' She was that type of person, one of those good teachers. There are not as many of them as there used to be," he said.


Milburn said Cantrell's inspiration and encouragement 40 years ago motivated him to start writing plays early in the 1990s that were performed in conjunction with the Battle of Perryville Commemoration weekend held every October. This year's play is "Sisters of Secession," a revival of a play performed in 1996. It is about a widowed mother and her three daughters - two with Union Army husbands and one with a Confederate Army husband - who come to visit.

Recently, Milburn caught up with Cantrell at her home in Danville, and explained to her that he had written a play each year for the past 11 or 12 years that pertained to the Civil War.

"I wish I'd known," Cantrell said, grinning slyly. "I could have edited it for you."

Cantrell clearly remembered Milburn, and remembered his references to fall 1963, when Milburn became inspired to become a playwright.

"I always had the idea I'd write a play, even as a child," Milburn said. "I didn't have a lot of (encouragement). Sometimes you need a boost from outside the family.

But a new teacher in the fall of 1963 - "one crazy teacher," Cantrell said - gave him just the encouragement he needed.

"I believed in Perryville students," Cantrell noted. "They were all bright, all pleasant, all great.

"There was a competition between county kids, but they all were great kids."

Milburn pulled a quote from his memory and applied it to his young desire to write plays.

"'In your aspirations and desires, don't be shackled by the doom sayers.' You were very encouraging to people," he said to Cantrell.

She was delighted with Milburn's playwriting endeavors.

"My husband was an actor himself, even though he was a major English teacher," she explained. "And I had grown up acting in plays. ... I helped stage manage and helped with stagework.

"I was very blessed to have a husband who was an actor and director. ... He was a very fine actor. He would come (to my classes) and we'd do excerpts from Shakespeare."

Cantrell pauses, obviously thinking.

"The happiest time in my teaching life was at Boyle County."

She said a lot of teachers didn't expect a great deal from their students, but that she did.

"But I don't think I expected too much."

Said Milburn, "I enjoyed writing, and after encouraging me that fall day in '63, I knew I could because Mrs. Cantrell said I could."

He said both his parents and John F. Kennedy were influences on him as a young person, and "I rank Mrs. Cantrell with them."

Said Cantrell, "I appreciate that compliment."

Cantrell, who holds a Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University, said she "would have fought to the death for my students."

"I had students like this man," she added, smiling.

"You were a good student and a cooperative student. I still love the memories of Boyle County."

Added Milburn, " I think you were exactly what we needed the first year (of high school). ... I think you instilled in a lot of your students that 'yes, you can achieve if you are not shackled by the doom sayers.'"

If You Want To Go

"Sisters of Secession" will be performed at 7 p.m. today and 10:30 a.m. and 7 p.m. Sunday at Perryville United Methodist Church. Admission is free.

Jennifer Brummett can be reached at

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