David Purdy, a former Columbia College theater instructor, actor and a founder of KAAD-LP Sonora community radio, died Saturday morning at his home in Sonora at the age of 79.
“He had this fierce energy to create. He couldn't help himself. He always had to have projects upon projects upon projects. The creative force was within him through to the end,” said Purdy’s daughter, Jennifer Lebell, 56, of Santa Barbara.
The projects David Purdy took on over his lifetime, much of which spent in Tuolumne County, were extensive, said his wife, Ellen Stewart, 76.
And as with all of his many passions — theater, the arts, fishing, the outdoors and cuisine — David Purdy pursued those projects with a penchant for risk and a zest for social justice.
“He had a great appetite for life,” said his daughter, Sabra Purdy, 40, of Joshua Tree.
His family even had a motto they knew him by, Sabra Purdy added — “if a little is good, more is better.”
“That was his M.O.,” she said.
David Purdy grew up in the Bay Area and graduated from San Jose State University. He worked as a bellman at the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite National Park before finding his first teaching job at Saratoga High School teaching English.
He had an interview with Bud Castle, longtime Sonora High School athletics coach and English teacher, in The Office Bar on South Washington Street in 1965 before teaching at the school. He later earned a master’s degree in theater from Fresno State and was hired by San Francisco State University to teach “politically motivated, rabble-rousing and social justice” theater, Stewart said.
Stewart, then a student at San Francisco State University, met David Purdy there in 1970 while he was a teacher.
David Purdy set out to establish plays in the Pinecrest area and hosted around a half dozen there between 1970 and 1972. Stewart came along to write publicity for the program, but when the cook quit, she ended up cooking for the actors and stagehands.
David Purdy and Columbia College, then only recently established, found a mutual attraction to one another. He was hired to start the drama department there in January 1971.
He and Stewart adapted the well-known children’s book, “The Phantom Tollbooth,” as the first play shown at Columbia College. They performed the play on an outside volleyball court, illuminated by the lights from cars.
“It was pretty primitive,” Stewart said.
The pair went on to show “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” adapting the novel by Ken Kesey, that next fall.
“He adapted practically everything he ever did, even the ‘Sound of Music.’ He had to improve everything,” Stewart said. “He was really the forerunner of theater in Tuolumne County in any meaningful way.”
Purdy was involved in almost all aspects of theater production — acting, directing, producing, stage design and construction — for the next 13 years as the college put on between two to three shows per year.
In 1984, the drama department was seeking a new home and David Purdy established the Columbia Actors Repertory at the Fallon House.
They performed 102 plays at the Fallon House until 1997, Stewart estimated, before moving to the Holman Foundry Theatre on South Washington Street and establishing the Mountain Actors Conservatory.
Throughout the many productions, David Purdy established international connections with actors and artists to broaden the cultural impact of Tuolumne County.
“He was really very pivotal in creating a lot of interesting cultural things that hadn't happened here before,” Stewart said.
After a trip to Australia in 1988, David Purdy and Stewart brought an Australian poet and aboriginal dream painters to Tuolumne County. He also brought an adaptation of “Black Elk Speaks” to the area with an all Native American cast made up of local and national actors.
“He was very instrumental in broadening the cultural awareness of Tuolumne County people who before this time didn’t have that,” Sabra Purdy said.
“There was no one else here who played a didgeridoo,” added David Purdy’s son, Scott Purdy, 56, of Nevada City.
In 2013, when the Federal Communications Division made an offer that small radio stations could apply for a license, David Purdy and Stewart jumped at the opportunity to establish the Sonora community radio station KAAD-LP which broadcasts at 103.5 FM.
”Everything he did, it was community oriented. It was performance oriented in one way or another. It was always something that was done as a group,” Sabra Purdy said. “The radio will continue to hold that space in some fashion moving forward.”
In his free time, David Purdy was still actively involved in the arts throughout Tuolumne County and recently volunteered with Stewart at Cassina High School to teach students about audio production.
Stewart said the radio station will continue operating, even in David Purdy’s absence.
She hopes the station will continue growing.
“We’ve been a little sidetracked by this illness. It got worse and worse and there hasn't been as much energy toward the radio as I've liked,” Stewart said.
Scott Purdy also described his father’s love of fishing in the Sierras, and even in Patagonia and Kamchatka.
“He taught all of us how to fly fish,” Purdy said.
David Purdy had six grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.