Will Cass at Senior Circle, Thursday. Noah Vernau Photo
You could hear him on the radio in Kansas and New Mexico. He served in the Army, worked with Danny Kaye, and graduated from a Catholic school for girls. He taught for 37 years, and his love for theater produced an acting bug that he maintains at the age of 72.
Of a life that has seen its share of stages and roles, Will Cass says, “I’ve zigzagged around.”
Born in Quanah, Texas, in 1940, Cass moved to New Mexico when he was 10 years old. First to Roswell, then Socorro, then Hondo. His family would later settle in Jal, where Cass graduated from high school in 1958.
After four semesters at New Mexico Highlands University, Cass left college to become a radio announcer at K-FUN in Las Vegas, N.M., where his voice traced the airwaves for a little over a year.
With the possibility of a military draft looming, Cass left radio to join the Army when he was 20 years old, and served his country for three years. Stationed in Korea for 15 months, Cass sharpened his performance skills as a member of a group called the Bayonet Chorale.
When Kaye, a celebrated comedian, traveled to Korea to entertain soldiers, he selected Cass and others to tour Korea for the holidays.
“I got to see professionalism up close, which I had never seen before,” Cass said. “I had always studied and wanted to be an actor. I had worked in amateur productions, but this was getting to work with a professional.”
While touring with Kaye, Cass witnessed firsthand the pressure and dedication of a top notch performer, and was struck by the focus Kaye showed as director.
“I don’t think he even knew we were there,” Cass said. “He only looked at us when he was directing us.”
After the Army, Cass returned to Highlands to continue his education, and soon found himself at another crossroads. He again left college, this time to join the I Don’t Care Singers amid a folk movement that had groups like Peter, Paul and Mary sprouting across the country. When the group reached its end, Cass found himself stranded in Salina, Kan. From K-FUN to K-FARM, Cass landed another job as a radio announcer.
One night while Cass was on the air, a nun from Mary Mount College who liked his voice called into K-FARM with an interesting request. Mary Mount, a Catholic school for girls, sought a male actor for one of the school’s plays. After one try-out, Cass was given the lead role in Playboy of the Western World, a classic Irish comedy.
Shortly after the play’s conclusion, Cass discovered the nuns had more ideas. It turned out that the school was considering a switch to co-ed, and promptly asked Cass to enroll as its only male student.
Cass accepted the role of guinea pig on a drama scholarship, and got to play everything the school came up with in the theater department.
“This was such a shock for some of these nuns to see this boy on campus,” Cass said. “There was this elderly nun who just could not get over the idea that I was not a girl. Or she couldn’t believe it. She came up to me one day and said, ‘You’re the ugliest girl that we’ve ever had on campus!’”
He went on to finish his last two years of undergraduate education at Mary Mount, earning his bachelor’s degree in theater and English.
During a play in his last semester at the college, a representative from Emporia State approached Cass about a teaching grant that would explore new, philosophical approaches to education. Cass jumped at the unique opportunity, once again playing the guinea pig, and would observe and critique teachers in classrooms, all while developing teaching methods to practice for his own purposes.
The year-long program allowed Cass to earn his master’s in education, which ultimately launched a teaching career that spanned decades. He taught in Kansas and Arizona until 1980, when he moved to Roswell to be close to his mother who lived in Artesia.
After four years at Goddard High School, Cass joined what would eventually become University High School, an alternative school where he utilized what he learned with his master’s to individualize programs for individual students. He taught at UHS for 21 years, and worked as an adjunct professor at ENMU-R for 19 of them.
Following some health problems a few years ago, Cass now embraces physical fitness as his most vital role. He participates in a program called Enhance Fitness, which meets at the J.O.Y. Center on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays at 2 p.m. He plans to obtain a teaching license for the class, which he says goes beyond the physical act of doing exercises.
Cass returned to acting in his early 60s at the Roswell Community Little Theater, and also directed plays at ENMU-R. At RCLT, he has participated in productions like Grease, Leading Ladies and Beauty in the Beast, and will do Fiddler on the Roof in September.
“It was a whole new ball game,” Cass said of his return to acting. “I just felt that focus was where I needed to go. Kind of like Danny Kaye, where you forget almost everything around you and just concentrate on the character itself.
“… To me, it’s like what an artist would do with a painting. You create the character for the stage.”