Community Perspective: Head of NIH has Valley ties

A contributed perspectives piece by Tom Arthur

On December 22nd Dr. Francis S. Collins, head of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) since 2009, was administered a Coronavirus vaccination on national television as an example for the country. Collins, a physician-geneticist who led the Human Genome Project and was a recipient of the National Medal of Science, grew up in the Staunton area and is a member of a distinguished, accomplished Valley family.

I’ve not met Dr. Collins but years ago worked with his parents, Fletcher and Margaret. Newly hired by Madison College in the early 70’s and sitting at my office desk, I heard a commanding voice behind me ask, “Is it you who’s going to re-make theater in the Shenandoah Valley?  Turning around I encountered a bemused and angry woman with grey hair down her back wearing a long flowing hippie-style dress, my introduction to Margaret Collins.  Responding to a Daily News Record story reporting that the Madison theatre’s new assignment was to “improve area drama,” Margaret now made it emphatically clear there had been strong theater in the area for a long time. Even when I protested that our unit didn’t want to remake anything except Madison theatre, she wasn’t convinced.  

Researching the matter later, I realized Margaret was justified in being irritated. In the 1930’s the Collins’s had worked with New Deal-inspired experimental education and arts activities in West Virginia, and after World War II had bought a large property in Verona where they had farmed without modern machinery and home-schooled their children, including the youngest of their four boys, Francis Collins. Fletcher with a doctorate in English from Yale had been hired as Drama Head at Mary Baldwin Woman’s College in Staunton where in the mid-fifties he and Margaret had founded the outdoor Oak Grove community theater, adding a nonprofit entity, the Theater Wagon, some years later.  

The Theater Wagon charter from the state of Virginia states that its purpose is “research and development leading to performances in revival of old plays and songs, and…the production of new works.” Importantly, “Theater Wagon does not pay salaries or wages” but “relies on voluntary, unpaid work by both professional and nonprofessional members of the project.”

The Collins’s and our group now began talking about work together, although we in Harrisonburg had just been reorganized to train aspiring professionals while the Staunton constituency was community based. After much negotiation a compromise was reached; we would do two plays together in the summer of 1975, a work written by Margaret called The Pond and a translation of Russian Symbolist Nicolas Evreinoff’s The Unmasked Ball by another Collins son and a few of the Madison professionals would be be paid. 

In the end both productions were well received. The Collins went on producing, directing, writing and hosting people in their beautiful Staunton home. Much of what they initiated still exists, including Oak Grove, now among the longest continuing community theaters in the country. “Fletch” as he was known by his family and friends, ultimately wrote four books on setting medieval plays to music, and at the age of 75 was designated “Cultural Laureate of Virginia.”

The Collins family were major influences on the life of the Valley, especially it’s theatre. It is gratifying to see their son, the NIH’s Dr. Francis Collins, doing outstanding work like his parents before him, but on a national stage.

Tom Arthur is a retired JMU teacher of acting. He has eight grandchildren.

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