In January, Sally Wilfert was onstage in New York's Lincoln Center singing Why Do High School Teachers Make Me Cry? in a show of works by Broadway composer and lyricist William Finn.
As she left the stage after the funny, poignant number, which makes reference to films including Goodbye Mr. Chips and Mr. Holland's Opus, she was encouraged by Finn to return to the stage and point out that two of her college teachers were in the audience: Eastern Kentucky University theater professors James R. Moreton and Homer Tracy.
Mr. Tracy got to hear that tribute just a few months before he died Saturday after a brief battle with colon cancer. He was 58.
"We just lost it," Moreton said recalling that evening in New York seeing one of the many students who came through EKU's theater department since Tracy arrived in 1982.
"He was the heart and soul of the place," said Moreton, who came to EKU in 1986 and worked with Tracy for 26 years. "He made musicals the public thing that was going on at EKU."
In 1986, Mr. Tracy directed and choreographed a production of A Chorus Line, which put EKU's theater department in the spotlight because it was one of the first licensed productions in the country of the hit show while it still was playing on Broadway. Mr. Tracy reprised a production of the musical for Lexington Musical Theatre in 1991, with Mr. Tracy reportedly conducting auditions in the Singletary Center for the Arts much like Zack, the imperious director portrayed in the show.
But to students, Mr. Tracy was far from imperious, helping many of them find their love of theater.
In addition to work as an assistant professor at EKU, Mr. Tracy was active in Central and Eastern Kentucky's theater scene, directing shows for Studio Players and ActOut in Lexington, Woodford Theatre in Versailles, Jenny Wiley Theatre in Prestonsburg and Pioneer Playhouse in Danville.
Homer Wayne Tracy was born Feb. 4, 1954, in Scottsville and was the son of the late Homer C. and Annice Brown Tracy.
Moreton, coordinator of EKU's theater program, recalled Mr. Tracy as a soul very much connected to his roots in Western Kentucky, introducing Moreton to old-fashioned, rural concepts such as "blackberry winter" and "May fresh" but also able to direct a crackling production of the urban West Side Story. In nearly three decades working together at EKU, Moreton said, Mr. Tracy directed a musical every year except one. His last show was a production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee in February.
"It was one of the best productions of his I had seen," said Moreton.
Mr. Tracy became ill toward the end of rehearsals for the show, but Moreton said Mr. Tracy got to see one of the last performances. "I am glad he got to see how good it was," Moreton said.
Mr. Tracy was diagnosed with colon cancer in July. Doctors found it was inoperable in November, though not a lot of people were aware he was sick. "He didn't want to bother people with it," Moreton said.
While he said Mr. Tracy's death, apparently in his sleep, was a blessing in that he would not have to suffer through the later stages of the cancer, "it is an incredible loss for the college."
Mr. Tracy is survived by his uncle, Samuel Brown Jr. of Birmingham, Ala., and several cousins.
A memorial service will be at 4 p.m. Wednesday at First Christian Church in Richmond. Memorial contributions are suggested to EKU's theater department.
Oldham, Roberts & Powell Funeral Home in Richmond is in charge of arrangements.