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Thoreau's Life and Legacy Comes to Life at Cardinal Stritch University

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Dress rehearsal of "The Life and Legacy of Henry David Thoreau."

For most of us, our knowledge of the philosopher and poet Henry David Thoreau begins and ends with his meditation Walden. But that’s not true of local cardiologist Dr. James Mathew.

Growing up in India, Mathew remembers reading quotes in the local Sunday newspaper. “And I remember Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson being most often quoted American writers,” he says.

When Mathew moved to the United States, a friend lent him a copy of Walden. “I took advantage of that offer. That was 30 years ago, and I’m still reading Walden,” he says.

Over the years, Mathew acquired a sizable collection of Thoreau's writings – from correspondence to essays and lectures.

When Mathew decided he would like to share some of the Thoreau artifacts with a wider circle, he contacted the Milwaukee Public Library. “They encouraged me to do a program and that was like waving a red flag in front of a bull.”

When Mathew struck on the idea of coupling the display of his collection with a live performance, “the library realized its resources were probably not sufficient to produce such a show.”

Mathew says a chance meeting with Dr. Robert Pavlik changed everything. Pavlik works with the Project for Community Transformation within Marquette University’s College of Professional Studies

“I happened to meet Dr. Bob Pavlik at a local church and I blurted out that I’m working on a project about Henry David Thoreau,” he says.

Pavlik starting reading Thoreau as a student. “I was an English major and the works of Henry David Thoreau were in one of my courses and I have been into environmental studies in recent years and I site a lot of Thoreau in my lectures and workshops,” he says.

Mathew asked Pavlik to narrate his production. The first performance was held in October 2014 at Marquette University.

Tomorrow, the dramatic readings will be repeated at Cardinal Stritch University’s Walter Schroeder Auditorium at 3 pm.

Dr. Mathew wrote the narrative and wove in Thoreau’s writings along with correspondence of people who knew Thoreau during his life.

“When I designed this, I thought someone has to give background information about Thoreau, which will elicit a curiosity of the audience to read more about him,” Mathew says.

He focused on the eulogy delivered by Ralph Waldo Emerson at Thoreau’s funeral.

“It was later published in the Atlantic Monthly and gave a very good picture of Thoreau as a poet, philosopher, naturalist, environmentalist and social reformer.” Mathew adds, “and then I wanted to present his human side, so I balanced the two.”

Mathew says his greatest challenge was to pull bits from Thoreau’s journals and essays to give the audience a flavor of his style, without making the performance too long.

“For example, each of his essays would probably take two to three hours to read. So condensing it to a three to four minutes was the most difficult task – not to lose its message but to bore or exhaust the patience of the audience. So that’s what took the longest amount of time,” he says.

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Malana Barbee-Morgan plays the little girl with water lily. Dr. Mathew met Malana & her grandmother by chance at a local restaurant and invited her to join the cast.

He pulled together twelve people to fill out the cast.

“The players, if I can use that term, all came to me from word of mouth. Some of them are my professional colleagues,” Mathew says. Another serves as a hospital chaplain. “I was looking for one or two more actors and I suddenly remembered that I attended a wedding officiated by Rev. Vicki Watkins and I really liked the way she presented and spoke and read. So I took the liberty to ask her if she would be in my production," he says.

Narrator Robert Pavlik says the Thoreau project has been a thrilling theatrical experience for him. “We have an excellent cast and we find that there’s a sacred time, a sacred space that emerges when we get further into the play. The audience last October was captured and raptured and we feel this is going to happen again this Saturday,” he says.

Thoreau died in 1862 - Saturday marks the anniversary of his funeral.

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Dr. Mathew shares some of his Thoreau collection with Robert Pavlik.

Susan Bence entered broadcasting in an untraditional way. After years of avid public radio listening, Susan returned to school and earned a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She interned for WUWM News and worked with the Lake Effect team, before being hired full-time as a WUWM News reporter / producer.