SHOREWOOD - Every once in a while a teacher comes along that not only makes a difference in a student's life, but actually changes the course of that student's life completely.
For many students at Shorewood High School, that teacher was Barbara Gensler.
She taught theater, speech and English for 47 years, while building one of the best drama programs in the state. She directed at least 165 plays during her time at SHS, not including her directorial work with the Shorewood Players and Marquette University.
Gensler died at home on Jan. 30 from a form of ALS. She was 81.
Gensler formed lifelong bonds with dozens of students. Many students who moved away from the Milwaukee area made a point to visit Gensler whenever they returned home. The connections she formed with her students were so deep that, upon her retirement in 2012, students from all over the country reunited for a three-hour tribute to Gensler. The SHS auditorium was renamed the Barbara Gensler Theater for the Dramatic Arts.
Jayne Perkins, who worked alongside Gensler as the theater department's vocal and musical director for about 20 years, said Gensler instilled in her students a desire for excellence.
"She always wanted students to achieve more than they thought they could. That's how high she set the bar," Perkins said. "It gave them this life lesson not to accept less than their absolute best, and you can't really give students a better lesson than that."
Gensler encouraged 8-year-old Steve Wexler to not be afraid of the spotlight when she cast him in a small part for the Shorewood Players' production of "Stop the World" in 1968. When Wexler reached high school, Gensler cast him in the spring musical "Anything Goes," in which Gensler coached him and a female student to act like they were in love.
"I followed her direction, and that girl, Amy James (Wexler), and I have been married 34 years," Wexler said. " Talk about having an impact."
Wexler, who is vice president of radio for E.W. Scripps Co., said Gensler always challenged her students to reach their full potential.
"She taught us the kind of life lessons that you don't realize until much later had a profound impact on your life," he said.
Gensler also made an impression on Maripat Wilkinson in the early 1970s. After Wilkinson graduated from high school, Gensler asked her to stick around and help in the drama department. Wilkinson's experience with Gensler inspired her to go back to school to become a drama teacher. She worked with Gensler in the Shorewood drama department, and she is now the drama director at Nathan Hale High School.
"She saw something in me from a director standpoint that I didn't even know I had," Wilkinson said.
When Wilkinson was ready to start a family, she moved back to Shorewood so her daughter could learn from Gensler. Now her daughter is about to graduate with a musical theater degree.
"She instilled in us a love for the arts, but also a desire to achieve excellence in something," Wilkinson said. "We were one of the best high schools — arguably in the country and certainly in the state — and it was because of her expectations and her process. There was no feeling like it, when all your hard work paid off."
Originally from Kenosha, Gensler attended UW-Madison and received her Master's degree from Marquette University. She received numerous awards, including the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the state of Wisconsin Governor's Award and a Kohl Teacher Fellowship. She was inducted into the Educational Theatre Association Hall of Fame in 1997. Under Gensler's direction, Shorewood drama students performed at the International Thespian Conference and the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh.
Many of Gensler's former students have gone on to achieve great success in the arts, including Kate Baldwin, who has appeared in four Broadway productions, was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical and is rehearsing for an upcoming Broadway performance of "Hello, Dolly!" starring Bette Midler.
The Shorewood Theater Department's reputation for difficult and sometimes controversial musicals can be attributed to Gensler, who tackled "Urinetown" and "Rent" in 2006.
"Barbara set the stage for doing those edgier things, but she always did it in an educational way — understanding what the playwright was saying and what the characters stood for," Perkins said.
Gensler was married to her husband Jim for 52 years. Jim said he was inspired by the impact his wife had on students in Shorewood. She worked closely with longtime technical director Gary Pruett on lighting, sound and set design, but Jim, an architect and engineer, also enjoyed helping out with the theater productions by designing, building and transporting sets when needed.
"I came to the conclusion that I could create a great building, but it could no more touch society as much as what Barb was doing by teaching children," he said. "I owed my time to supporting her and her efforts."
Memorial contributions can be made to the Barbara Gensler Theatre Arts Scholarship Fund, c/o Shorewood School District, 1701 E. Capitol Drive, Shorewood, WI 53211. Note in memo line: "Barbara Gensler Scholarship Fund."