In memory of

Thomas Henry Empey

Mar 13, 1946
Nov 9, 2016

Obituary

In the syllabi for his theater classes at Casper College, Tom Empey often quoted President John F. Kennedy: “I am certain that after the dust of centuries has passed over our cities, we, too, will be remembered not for victories or defeats in battle or in politics, but for our contribution to the human Spirit.”

The quote is fitting, Empey’s friends said, for a man who gave so much of his life to his students and the Casper arts scene. Empey died Wednesday at the age of 70. He is survived by his wife, three children and five grandchildren.

“Tom understood that we can survive without the arts, but we can’t thrive without them,” said Bill Conte, who teaches theater history and literature at Casper College. “He gave his life to that.”

Empey joined Casper College in 1979 as part of a two-person theater faculty. Over the next 30 years, Empey expanded the faculty to nine, began a musical theater program and worked to build and later renovate the Krampert Theatre, which now houses a space bearing his name.

“The sense of energy, commitment and vision it took to build this over the years are a monument to a life,” Conte said. “It will never go away.”

Jim Olm, current chair of the college’s Theatre and Dance Department, couldn’t stop hearing Empey’s deep, booming voice as he walked the halls of Casper College on Thursday. The college was an extension of Empey, especially the theater department that he built, Olm said.

“It’s like he’s coming out of the walls,” he said.

Empey stood out for his deep voice and lanky stride, said Rich Burk, who worked with him at the college for 26 years. He was a talented and thoughtful director, Burk said, but it was Empey’s devotion to Casper as a whole that truly defined him.

“He helped people know that the arts are not just for the elites — they’re for all of the community,” Burk said.

Empey retired from the college in 2010 because he had pulmonary fibrosis and needed to move somewhere with a lower elevation. The department he left behind was far different than than the one he joined in 1979.

Jean Tichenor joined the faculty soon after Empey and remembers the two spending long nights building sets together in a tiny room, which would later become a computer lab.

After rehearsal on Fridays, Tichenor and Empey would paint props and stencil backgrounds until the early morning. Empey’s wife, Lissa, would bring homemade food to the paint-stained workers every few hours. More than once they worked until sunrise.

“We were like the three musketeers,” Tichenor said.

The two worked closely together for years, exchanging ideas and making large productions fit in the theater’s tiny space. Although the days were long, those early years are host to some of Tichenor’s favorite memories of Empey.

“He just allowed me to grow, and encouraged it,” she said. “It’s the same as what he did with all of his students.”

Empey refused to give up on students who were struggling, Olm said. His students would often call him at home, and Empey never failed to answer. He even invited students to live in his home when they had nowhere else to go.

“Watching him in class, in productions and outside of those walls he always lived what he truly believed: that students come first,” Olm said. “It was as much as a mission for him as it was a job.”

Empey’s love for his students and passion for the arts came from the very depths of himself, Tichenor said.

“That desire to create art was something God built into him when he was created,” she said. “He had to do it.”

Empey’s desire to create expanded well outside of the college, Conte said. When the college hired Conte in 2010 to fill Empey’s teaching position, Empey took his replacement under his wing and taught the New Yorker about Casper and Wyoming.

“He taught me that you have to work toward the benefit of the community you serve,” Conte said. “He taught me you have to understand the hearts and minds of the people you’re working for.”

Olm has written plays for decades but said he could not craft a character like Empey. An audience just wouldn’t find him believable.

“He had such a unique outrageousness,” he said. “Everything about him was larger than life. You don’t usually run into people like that. He was a tour de force.”

Article Courtesy of the Caspter Star Tribune - Elise Schmelzer

Messages of Sympathy

  1. Julie Neville Robertson says:

    The world has lost an extraordinary man, a larger-than-life force of nature who left an indelible mark upon everyone he encountered. Tom Empey was one of the most remarkable people I have ever known. Smart, funny, insightful, and more talented than a barrel full of dancing monkeys, Tom gave so very much to our community. More so, Tom gave SO very, very much to every student, actor, crew member, musician, instructor, and artisan with whom he crossed paths.
    My first memory of Tom was in the unbelievably small theater in the Administration building of Casper College. (That space would eventually become a computer lab when the theater program moved to its own building up the hill.) "Theater in the Round" is a terribly difficult feat to accomplish, but Tom made it look as simple as walking from stage left to stage right. My parents took my sister and me to see many plays over the years, but the one that stands out in my mind is "Hello, Dolly!" From the first downbeat to the last lingering note, this musical production had much the effect of a drug on me. Nothing else existed. Every sense was 100% engaged in the enrapturing experience. The show didn't just exist in front of our eyes; it captured the audience and transported them to another time and place. Indescribably flawless vocals, choreography, acting, and direction combined to produce a show of truly professional quality. It was very hard to believe that most of the actors were students. As the show ended, (There was no curtain to fall, as this was theater in the round.) I sat, breathless, with the rest of the audience members - too dumbstruck to even breathe out loud. I remember the pause before the ovation was palpable. It was though each person in the audience was afraid to clap, knowing it would break the spell. When the applause did start, it was thunderous, with every audience member on their feet and clapping as though their very life depended upon it.
    Some years later, I would have the honor of working for Tom under Louella Powell in the costume shop of Casper College's production of "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," performed at the Gertrude Krampert theater at Casper College. Newly graduated from high school, I was very green in the ways of the incredibly intricate process of college theater. I had done some high school theater, but moving to the professional-quality productions that Tom directed was a most exceptional experience. I helped with sets and made many of the costumes for "Forum," as well as being a "dresser" backstage, helping actors with fast costume changes between scenes. I was awed at how MANY tiny little details combined to make a "Tom Empey Production." Split-second set changes with pieces of set dressing that served double, even triple duty - carried out with an almost military precision, combined with nearly instantaneous costume changes and frenetically paced dialogue and music to create a production which kept the audience on the edge of their seats in rapt anticipation clear to the end. Spending time in the costume shop that summer, I remember we hand-stitched over 300 nickel-sized sequins to a belly dancer's costume to make it look like mermaid scales. It worked flawlessly, and the grin on Tom's face when he saw it made it worth every single stitch.
    Later, I would again work for Tom in the Casper College production of "Fiddler on the Roof." Tom insisted that in addition to learning our lines, blocking, and music, each cast member was required to research and "flesh out" their own character. (Easy for scripted roles, slightly harder for "background " actors) He explained to us that by creating convincing characters, it gave the audience the ability to believe they had been transported into the storyline. He shared with us some of the history of the Jewish people, and the impetus for some of the traditions included in the play. He took us to Shabbat services at the local temple, where we eagerly absorbed even more. We were encouraged to immerse ourselves in the culture, the language, and the music. Every time someone would go through a door without touching the mezuzah, his deep voice would boom, "Go back. Do it again."
    That voice! Oh, how I loved that voice. Whether he was passionately reciting Shakespeare, precisely blocking a show, giving us meticulous notes in the Green Room, (mandatory after EVERY single performance), conversing with a colleague, or (on the rare occasion) bursting into song, Tom's voice patently resounded in your soul. I would have happily sat and listened to him read the New York City phone book, followed by War and Peace, and the entire Encyclopedia Brittania, if it meant I'd get to listen to his voice. Over the years, I heard the full gamut of that formidable voice - from a hushed whisper backstage, to a metered lecture, to an impassioned presentation, to the dreaded, "Oh boy. We're in trouble" voice. I'm not going to lie here, before I knew the kind, loving, and thoughtful man Tom was, that last one kind of scared me more than just a bit.
    His laugh always reminded me of the giants' in fairy tales. Even a soft chuckle filled the space he occupied and spilled over as though it was just too much to hold within one space. It began as a deep rumble in his chest, and quickly sped along like a fully loaded freight train, culminating in a resounding explosion of mirth that was thoroughly contagious. You could hear Tom's laugh halfway across the theater building; every time I heard it, I couldn't help but grin and chuckle.
    There was nothing about Tom Empey that wasn't completely and utterly awe-inspiring. He took a tiny little theater program in a rinky-dink, backwater two year community college, housed in a Lilliputian space with limited resources, and (with the help of some brilliantly talented people like Jean Tichenor, Steven Burk, David Dundas, and many others) nurtured it into a nationally renowned theater arts curriculum.
    Towering above the crowd in his trademark richly-hued satin western shirts and a lopsided, slightly impish smile, Tom Empey was uncannily reminiscent of another tall, lanky leader who broke boundaries, led armies, and brought unbelievable dreams to reality. Like old Abe, Tom was naturally easy to trust. From your first meeting with him, you could just feel his trustworthiness like an aura encircling him. In getting to know him better, you would discover that Tom was not only implicitly trustworthy, but also devout, tenacious, affable, and very much reliable, charismatic, and a thinly veiled genius.
    Tom was such a kind, gentle, loving man, and a brilliant, ingenious teacher. I will miss him deeply.

    Lissa, David, Nick, and Erin -
    The say that time heals all wounds. As someone who occupied a part of so many hearts, Tom will always be missed. With time, however, I hope that the sadness of his passing will be replaced by cherished, if not bittersweet memories. My prayers are with you during this difficult time. I wish you all the best. God bless you.
    With loving regards,

    Julie Neville Robertson
    jujubuggy@gmail.com
    Casper, Wyoming

  2. Johnson Funeral Home Staff says:

    Our deepest sympathies to the Empey family. He was a good and beloved man with a beautiful speaking voice. Thank you for the trust placed in Johnson Funeral Home.

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