Black butterfly: The life and afterlife of Marijean Levering

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Marijean Levering, in her younger days, poses in a black cape. Source: A photo collage at The Marijean Levering Memorial Service.

UC’s beloved theatre professor, Marijean Levering, lost a long and hard-fought battle with breast cancer on July 27, 2017, after her second bout with the disease.

As fate would have it, on that same day, butterflies were released on the Utica College campus, part of an event sponsored by Hospice and Palliative care. The overcast sky filled with the colorful wings of the creatures, flitting every which way as they were scattered by the breeze.

A shock wave of sadness and disbelief spread across Utica College and its social networks as news of Levering’s death was shared by President Laura Casamento.

On that gloomy day, Levering shed her physical shell, stretched her wings and fluttered away.

She traveled upward, out from the confines of a hospital in Detroit. She turned her sights east, to the city of Utica, where she came to a soft landing at her new home, Strebel Auditorium.

Before her death, Levering told those closest to her that she would be the theatre ghost at Strebel Auditorium– a benevolent spirit, so long as everyone was behaving and standing up straight. Her quirky maniacal laugh can almost be heard from here.

“Lore says all theatres have a theatre ghost and Strebel Auditorium was unoccupied,” said Alexandra Caldas ’13, a graduate of the public relations and journalism and theatre programs and former Tangerine copy editor. Caldas was one of Levering’s closest friends. “I don’t know how much of it was serious and how much was a humorous defense mechanism of imminent death, but yeah. We totally talked about her moving in and frying cellphones when people take them out during plays.”

These are the type things that Levering often joked about, and it may have helped her cope with the ever-present threat of her cancer coming back.

More likely though; it was Levering’s way to help those who were concerned about her health feel better. This was the type of person that Levering was, always looking out for others before herself.

“Her mom was praying for a miracle and Marijean said ‘if that miracle goes to me instead of a kid with leukemia or something, I’m going to be pissed’,” Caldas said.

A memorial service was held on Saturday, September 9 in the Library Concourse.  Many of her close friends, former students and colleagues attended to pay their respects and share fond memories of Levering.

One sentiment echoed over and over again at the memorial was that Levering was like a mother figure- the matriarch of the UC Theatre family.  Some affectionately referred to Levering as the Queen of Darkness. Strebel Auditorium was her enchanted realm in which many found acceptance, and a second home.

Levering’s office door, 103 DePerno Hall. Photo by Kyle Riecker.

Professor Laura Salvaggio was tasked with sorting through Levering’s office before the semester started.   Levering’s office door was plastered with posters, articles, and other tidbits related to UC Theatre. Countless to-do lists and notes-to-self were stuck to her desk and filing cabinets.

Levering’s many jars sat on proud display on her office table, including her notorious jar of student’s souls.  Another jar, this one made of glass, was a third-full of Advil.  Levering would occasionally chuck an Advil at a theatre student in their time of need. Did she ask for student’s souls in exchange for an Advil? — Probably not, the exchange of souls was likely reserved for much bigger favors.

Levering’s prized jar of student’s souls. Photo by Kyle Riecker.

Salvaggio maintained a smile while sorting through her things, although the immense pain she was feeling was obvious. Salvaggio is now the interim Chair of the Performing and Fine Arts, a role which she takes on with a heavy heart in place of Levering.  It was Levering’s wish that Salvaggio take over the position.

“She was my best friend and colleague for so many years, even if I didn’t work for UC Theatre, we would still be best friends.  Theatre people stick together,” Salvaggio said.

Levering was well-known for her dark yet lovable sense of humor, and for her interest in the macabre.  She incorporated that love into her teaching, as well as the productions she oversaw, and other events in the community.

Levering worked to bring the Utica Zombie Walk, a local charity event, to Utica College in 2012. It was to be sponsored by UC Theatre. The walk was moved to the Uptown Theatre during the last stages of planning due to concerns from campus safety about masks.

Nevertheless, Levering was at the Uptown Theatre the day of the zombie walk with her makeup bag in tow, as well as her crew from UC Theatre; including Salvaggio. That night they worked tirelessly to convert hundreds of Uticans young and old into zombies.

Levering applying makeup at the 2012 Utica Zombie Walk. Photo by Vanessa Armendola.

At the memorial, and by Levering’s request, Caldas read a eulogy, as well as Father Paul Drobin and William Lanfear, ’10. Lanfear, now a professional makeup artist, was a close friend and a protégé of Levering’s.  Many more came forward after the eulogies to share memories of Levering, with laughs and tears doled out in equal proportions.

“She loved teaching everyone, every moment was a teachable one to her,” Lanfear said. “I owe everything to her. She found a spark in me, and nurtured it.  I know she is watching me still, and will continue to guide me.”

Levering had an equally impactful effect on Caldas’ life.

“I got a tattoo in her handwriting of a to-do list on my arm because she reminded me that no matter how difficult things may be, quitting is not an option,” Caldas said.  “Up to the very end, she never gave up. There were so many times that I felt I had been kicked down and I had failed. But her strength will now, quite literally, always be there to remind me to be strong and continue working on my to-do list.”

Although Caldas is an atheist, she enjoys the hypothetical notion that Levering may be hanging around Strebel Auditorium, keeping a watchful eye on future UC Theatre students, and making sure her jar of souls is well-tended to.

So if something stirs in the night in Strebel Auditorium- it may be Levering saying “come to the dark side; we have cookies,” and “I’m still here for all of you.”

“Whether it was her illness or a personal tragedy, Marijean not only persevered, but was still checking in on the people she cared about,” Caldas said. “She was the strongest person I knew.”

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