Commentary > Community, students will dearly miss this educator and director

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If the time span had been right, I would have wanted to be a high school student of Paul Mathis, who died recently at the far-too-young age of 61.

Mathis had been an English teacher at Lower Cape May Regional High School, but was best known among the public for his role as director of the high school’s big scale musicals and other theater productions. He had been directing there since 1975 when he directed his first musical “The Fantasticks.” He retired as a teacher a few years ago, but continued as a director as well as manager of the school’s theater.

I came to know Mathis when I first interviewed him about his plays more than 20 years ago, but it was more than a reporter-source relationship. Our conversation expanded to the Broadway theater which I visited frequently when I lived in North Jersey and which he also attended in the summer when he wasn’t making high school theater history here. We compared notes and he kept me up to date New York City.

Mathis, who also was an actor and performed here some years ago in the comedy “Social Security,” gave me tips for human interest stories and features about his actors and actresses.

When he was directing “Funny Girl,” the show that starred Barbra Streisand on Broadway, he warned his student leading lady that he would be tough on her as she rehearsed the part that is a difficult one even for adults, let alone high school thespians.

“When we’re ready for show time, you’ll either want to marry me or divorce me,” he cautioned the young actress.

Sometimes when I asked him how well his actors were performing in rehearsals he replied, “They’ll knock your socks off. Later I told him that I was running out of socks and for decency sake I hoped it would stop there.

Last March, I phoned Mathis at his Palermo home for information on what was to be his latest direction, one of more than 30 musicals he has helped bring to life on the old and the new stages of Lower Cape May Regional High School. He answered in a raspy, failing voice.

“I am a very sick man, Jake,” he said. “This happened to me unexpectedly.”

The show “Anything Goes” went on anyway in March without Mathis at the helm. He was too ill to attend and local actor-director John Alvarez took his place.

Meanwhile, Paul’s friends, teachers, administrators, students, former students and fans of his theater were among those who showed up for an upbeat tribute to him on July 13 — a little more than a month after his death — in the auditorium where he reigned. They played music and some danced a scene from the musical “42nd Street,” one of the best productions he has directed. Some 800 people crowded the theater. They had hoped Mathis would still be alive when they staged their tribute, but he would not have been well enough to attend.

Lynn Massimiano, his long-time assistant producer and costume mistress, said the event was not a memorial for him.

“It was more of a tribute and admiration for all the things that Paul has done for everyone,” she said. “It was just wonderful to see all those people come together for him”

While the final curtain of life has descended on Paul, that may not be so at the theater. There is a movement afoot to name the stage in honor of him.

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