The Show is Over, Say Goodbye

Photo of the Iowa Wesleyan campus in the fall of 2022. The photo is a worm's eye view perspective, with yellow fallen leaves in the foreground. Blurred into the background are four evergreen trees, and Old Main is visible behind them.

Not too long ago, after 35 years and nearly 14,000 performances, The Phantom of the Opera dropped the curtain (and prior to that, the chandelier) for the final time on Broadway. Since its arrival, Phantom has been a pop culture phenomenon and a musical institution. My opportunities to catch the show have been in streaming only, and primarily secondhand through the passion of others, but I love the show in all of its melodramatic earworm glory. I’ve been watching with bittersweet fascination as the news and lucky theatergoers on social media document the last rites. The chandelier is unveiled and soars one more time above the Majestic Theatre, the last Masquerade begins to the rowdy cheers of the audience. The cast takes a final bow, and honors the past, and poses for photographs one last time as a unit.

I’m in the middle of my own last rites, making and documenting my own series of final things. My current institution- the place I had fantasies of retiring from – is closing for good after 181 years of history and service in education. Iowa Wesleyan University will finish the 2022-23 Spring semester, but the final curtain falls May 31. That’s not quite true. It’s falling now, in slow motion. We see it coming down from our periphery, in the ways our processes and projects have changed. We feel it in the way we ask our colleagues, “How are you?” from habit, but feel instant regret at the awkward “Well, you know,” that follows. Our students show us as they share their own sadness, their own fear, and we struggle to talk about plans going forward. I still have plenty of things to do, but every project now is heavy with the oncoming end, and there are no hopeful projects for next semester, or discussions of work plans in cohesion with the exciting university strategic plan finalized this fall. My days are slow in a way they never were, interspersed with urgency as I rush to complete a project with a now-inflexible deadline.

I didn’t want to be Iowa Wesleyan’s last graphic designer.

I think with admiration of our faculty whose service numbers in decades and half-centuries. Humans who have challenged and inspired two, three generations of learners. I wanted to be one of them. With pleasure, I’ve hung photos of past interns on my office walls. When they return to campus – and they do more frequently than I’ve ever visited my own alma mater – they greet me with hugs and stories. When the closure announcement came through, I heard from all of them.

I was so hopeful that there would be more. There were more coming, juniors waiting in the wings for their turn at making program sheets and Homecoming flyers. I found myself thinking about the future, that maybe one of them would come back to take my place, and I could hand my stewardship over to them. I could see what they’d make of it, how they’d change it, as their volumes of the Purple & White, their Lessons & Carols programs took the next open spot on the shelf beside mine in the Archive. For the first time, I felt like my work was in service to something greater than myself. I really understood the concept of legacy not as a service to my own ego, but as a throughline connecting my service to the service of others. My design work is a product of my training and culture, the trends and resources of my time, and I wanted them to be held by future IW designers with the same professional curiosity with which I’ve held issues from a generation ago. I thought of them gathering years and dust, drawn out like a time capsule by another spelunking marketing team in search of a forgotten factoid, the same way we did.

I wanted to be part of the story, not the end. Yet here I am, the curtain overhead, the metaphorical chandelier descending. In two weeks, the majority of my work will be done. Commencement will be over, all the programs printed and stowed away in boxes and suitcases (and recycling bins, of course). It’ll be time to finish the act of packing my personal belongings, started in dribs and drabs since early April. My interns will be on their way home, or to their new home, for fresh starts and exciting opening nights. It’s hard to think of new beginnings right now, but I’ll follow them soon enough. On to familiar work in different spaces, to new people, new goals.

It’s hard to remember that it’s not me that’s ending. Actors are much more prepared for this than me, with careers marked in the framework of productions and parts, where the end of a performance run could be the doorway to a new adventure. They leave their roles behind with their good work, the wind of their forward motion flutters their laurels to the stage, and it’s fine. There will be more laurels. They have faith, because they need to do what they do, and so do I.

I’ve never been terribly good at accepting uncertainty, but it’s a good time to learn. And as I think about the parallels between the end of a three-decade Broadway hit and this intensely personal finale, I remember that love never dies. Phantom of the Opera isn’t truly over. It lives in traveling performances, in college theater productions, in film adaptations, in the careers it changed, and in the memories of the people who love it. Echoes will reverberate for a generation, and it will live and breathe in the passion of humans well after the theater doors close.

So will we. So will I. Iowa Wesleyan’s unique community has been the field to grow so many fulfilling lives in its nearly two centuries. There were a lot of firsts here, a lot of foundings, and even if the place is no longer accessible, those roots are still strong. This campus was a stage to tell human stories, and the stories will continue when the stage is dark. The stories will continue even if the artifacts aren’t saved. Even if the boxes and tapes and reels of its history are scattered and lost. Those of us who lived here will carry the stories we know into the future, and our lives will be the reverberations of how it challenged, inspired, and transformed us.

Even though I don’t want this ending, for myself or the campus or any of us, I have gratitude that it’s us with the responsibility for this final act. We carry these final days with loving, grieving hands, and the decisions I make as a designer are rooted in that love. I can’t help but do right by an institution that welcomed and made a home for me; I won’t spill that grief out in sentimental nostalgia on the page. The lessons I’ve learned about legacy here are attended by lessons in what it means to be part of something greater than myself, that there is pleasure to be had in the service rather than in the laurels. Everything I’ve ever made here has been with the intention to disappear, to stay in the shadows while I illuminate what matters. She may only have a few more weeks to live, but in my hands, the best of her will shine.

6 responses to “The Show is Over, Say Goodbye”

  1. Beautiful eulogy for an institution gone too soon. I’m sorry you and the school are going through this, and here’s hoping the next thing supports you and gives you room to further grow.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you. ❤️ I appreciate it. I wish I’d had a chance to show you IW before it closed, I think you’d love it as much as I do. Appreciate the positive vibes!


  2. So sorry Jen, Education has been hit so hard. Let’s hope a new and exciting adventure comes your way! Love

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Liz. It’s extra heartbreaking because we were doing so many things right and our enrollment was growing. I hope so too. I’m trying! I’d like to stay in higher ed design if I can, but staying open to possibilities.


  3. Squirrel!! I’ll think of you and Kendra every time I see one.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m proud to have squirrels as a personal brand. 🐿 Thanks, Patty. You will ever and always be one of my favorite clients!


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