David Greenleaf Purdy packed a lot of life into his 79 years. Truly a Renaissance Man, he was a brilliant theatre director/producer/playwright, a gifted set designer, a demanding teacher, a lavish landscaper, a endearing husband, a loving father, a skilled fly fisherman, an intrepid traveler, a prodigious gourmet, an appreciator of the natural world, a tireless crusader for and defender of the “little guy”- and an untamed irritant to most administrators. He was, in short, an endlessly creative spirit who was constantly and chronically thinking up some new endeavor (or possibly hair-brained scheme) that might benefit the local community and beyond.
David was raised in San Jose, graduating from James Lick High School in 1957 with the intention of becoming a writer. He began his formal education at Middlebury College in Vermont, leaving to work in Yosemite where he developed a deep love of the Eastern Sierra. More education followed at San Francisco State University, with graduation from San Jose State in 1962. He attended the Wallace Stegner School of Creative Writing at Stanford, then entered a teaching credential program. His first teaching job was at Saratoga High School in 1963.
While traveling through Sonora in the summer of 1965, he met Bud Castle who, after a long night of sharing tall tales, offered him a job teaching English at Sonora High School. In 1967 he entered the Master’s Degree n program in Speech Arts at Fresno State University; there he learned all aspects of technical theatre arts.
During his two years in Fresno, he was reunited with an old high school friend, Luis Valdez, who had begun El Teatro Campesino, a traveling farm workers’ theatre company. David toured with the group as the resident “gringo” and tech director In 1969, David joined the Theatre Arts faculty at San Francisco State University. At the height of protests against U.S. involvement in Vietnam, he wrote and directed a play, Requium, that highlighted the folly, brutality and tragedy of the war. In the winter of 1971, Columbia College offered David the opportunity to teach English and begin a Drama department. Later that spring, the first college production, The Phantom Tollbooth, was held on the old volleyball courts with the rehearsals illuminated by car headlights. David lead the Columbia College Drama department for 26 years, in partnership with his wife, Ellen Stewart. The first 13 years were on the Columbia campus where he built the stage in the Dogwood Building and the stage in Carkeet Park. He directed many memorable productions including Fiddler on the Roof , The Taming of the Shrew , As You Like It and two productions of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
In 1984, the drama department moved to the Fallon House Theatre where they formed Columbia Actors’ Repertory, a unique combination of professional, regional and student actors. He produced 102 plays on the Fallon House stage, directing and designing many of them. His favorites among them were: The Grapes of Wrath , Lost Highway , Black Elk Speaks , 1940’s Radio Hour, My Fair Lady and Woody Guthrie’s American Song.
Throughout the 1980’s, David tirelessly pursued a burning passion to transform the abandoned and derelict Sonora Opera Hall to a home for a regional theatre company as well as a community center. After years of effort, he ultimately was responsible for the transfer of ownership from the Dienelt family to the City of Sonora. Though he was not successful in realizing his own dream, he provided the inspiration and the groundwork for the Sonora Opera Hall that today is a popular venue for many events. After the close of CAR in 1997, David created a new theatre company, Mountain Actors’ Conservatory, and built a home for it at the Holman Foundry. MAC closed in 2001, after more than 30 productions, shortly after the catastrophe of 9-11.
David retired from teaching at Columbia College in 2004. Golf held no allure; instead he became a landscape designer/mason, creating a number of beautiful landscape designs in California and Montana.
In 2013, about the time rocks started to feel heavier, the FCC offered a brief window to apply for a license to create a low-power community radio station. With the support and blessing of the Tuolumne County Arts Alliance, David and wife Ellen filed an application. Four years later, KAAD-LP began broadcasting at 103.5fm and streaming at kaad-lp.org. Now in its third year, the station offers members of the community the chance to give voice to their ideas, their expertise and their varied tastes in music.
A man of monumental energy, David was never down for long or lacking a new project. He was a visionary, a driven soul, a generous spirit who offered many people opportunity, inspiring them to stretch beyond their own sense of the possible. He loved nothing better than to create “community” and to lend a helping hand. He had a profound effect on many lives.
David will be greatly missed by his wife, Ellen Stewart, his children Scott Purdy (Cyndie), Jennifer Purdy Lebell (Michael) and Sarah (Sabra) Purdy (Seth Zaharias); his sister MaryJane Clarkson (Ken), his two nephews Steven and Tom Clarkson, his sister-in-law Elizabeth Hays, grandchildren Evan Purdy (Harmony), Kacey Finnegan (Alan), Sean Purdy (Czerina), Jake, Ben and Westley Lebell; great-grandchildren Logan, Lilah, and Zoey Purdy and Kellan Finnegan; two fine shaggy dogs, Lundy and Wasco; and two spooky feral cats.
The family is deeply indebted to Dr. Eric Runte and his staff for their very generous and tender-hearted care of David and to Adventist Home Health and Hospice of the Sierra for all of their efforts in a difficult time.
In lieu of flowers, donations in David’s honor may be made to Tuolumne County Arts Alliance, earmarked for KAAD-LP Community Radio, 160 South Washington Street, Sonora CA 95370. For information regarding David’s Send-Off, email kaad-lp.org with Send-Off in the subject.