NAST past President Tony Distler passed away in Blacksburg, Virginia on December 28, 2016. Tony was a gentleman of the theatre and of academia: kind, generous, thoughtful, and always ready to help. He was instrumental during the years of transition that brought reformation to NAST, saw the first stages of steady membership growth, and established a strong relationship with the other arts accrediting organizations. Tony’s contributions were consistent with his sophisticated understanding of connections between independence and community.
For most of his academic career, Tony Distler was associated with Virginia Tech. He was brought to Blacksburg in 1967 to start a theatre program and in the next twelve years was instrumental in expanding theatre and other arts and communication offerings. He sought opportunities to cooperate and help others, and this attitude coupled with constant effort paid rich dividends for students, faculty, and the institution. Arts programs grew in the context of a science and engineering university and benefited the surrounding region. He liked to see things grow in ways that helped people learn. In little over a decade, he and his colleagues established a base for growth from the late 70s until now. Tony Distler played a leadership role for many subsequent years.
His artistic commitment, management skills, personal style, and integrity commended him to his colleagues beyond Virginia Tech, and over time he became increasingly prominent in state and national theatre organizations. Among other offices, he was president of the American Theatre Association and Dean of the College of Fellows of the American Theatre.
He intersected with NAST at a propitious time. As the 70s turned into the 80s, the Association faced new challenges and opportunities. In response, NAST changed its structure. Professional studio schools that did not grant degrees became members. The Constitution, Bylaws, standards, and procedural documents were revised and updated. NAST became nationally recognized by the higher education community and by USDE. The Association began to function structurally as it does today. Then as now, volunteers were essential, volunteers who had professional and institutional experience in theatre, but also a vision for the field as an aggregate whole and how individuals and institutions could help each other. Tony Distler was just such a volunteer. He wanted to do whatever could be done to help every person and every institution to be as good as it could be, and improve continuously. He was deeply respected as a consultant and visiting evaluator, valued in committees seeking wise, pragmatic, workable solutions, and welcomed as a warm spirit, a happy warrior or quiet advocate for good things as the situation demanded. He was a member of the Board of Directors from 1985-1987 and 1997; President of the Association 1987-1990; and Chair of the Committee on Nominations 1991-1993. He helped the Association grow, but did so primarily for the love of theatre writ large. These art-of-theatre priorities shared with other NAST leaders and members built the Association’s reputation for artistic focus and academic integrity.
Tony Distler and his work were encompassing. This characteristic enabled him to see and make connections, and engendered his appreciation and respect for the whole system of many parts needed for artistic and scholarly work at all levels, but especially at the highest levels. NAST is fortunate to have had the benefits of his mind and spirit, and to have a share in the great legacy he leaves to future generations.