Tales of Grit and Greatness: Tootsie Duvall ’75

As part of our 50th Anniversary celebration, we’ve launched Retriever Stories, a place where Retrievers of all stripes can reflect on their UMBC experience and where it’s led them. Check out this brief promo video here, then read on for the story of Susan Mohr ’75, theatre,  otherwise known as Tootsie Duvall. She’s perhaps best known for her role as Assistant Principal Marcia Donnelly on The Wire, and has appeared in numerous films and television series over the last four decades (and counting!). We asked her what grit and greatness means to her, and here’s what she told us…

tootsie-duvallGrit and Greatness is a wonderful 50th anniversary theme for UMBC – and it resonates with me. It took a lot of grit for me to work full time, go to school full time, have my own apartment, and do plays all summer for summer repertory as a teen in the 1970s.

I also had the grit to succeed in my chosen field. I was told in high school by a male guidance counselor in 1971 that “girls” were limited in their career choices. They could be teachers, secretaries, or nurses.  My own father thought it was a mistake for me to go to college.  Unless it was to find a husband.  But I found so much more.

The greatness comes in when you consider that so many of the blessings I count 42 years later flowed from my experiences at UMBC. I met my best friend, Sherry Frank ’73, who took me in to live with her when I had no place to go at age 18.  I just met her first granddaughter, Emerson, last year.  That was great!

I also met William T. Brown, who was the chair of UMBC’s theatre department. He awarded me the scholarship that allowed me complete my education. He changed the course of my life. 

Greatness was also the opportunity to compete for a National Theatre Scholarship in Washington, D.C. Even in its early days, UMBC had one of the finest theatre companies in the country. We were in the American College Theatre Festival twice in the time I went to school there, and I won the Award of Excellence from the Kennedy Center for my participation. 

All of those experiences helped me grow as a young woman, and as a human being.  William Brown even made sure we stopped rehearsing to watch the Watergate Hearings in his office. 

Being the first woman in my family to go to college was a huge event in my life – and it led to great things for me. I was in UMBC’s summer repertory and someone came to see a play that I was in, and they recommended I try out for Totem Pole Playhouse. That lead me to noted actress Jean Stapleton’s theatre. Stapleton was brand new to a show called All in the Family, and she had won numerous Emmy Awards for her performance.

I played Stapleton’s daughter in my first professional acting experience, and she introduced me to other people who became my surrogate family. Noted character actor Howard Morton took me under his wing as my surrogate father and my dearest friend. I lived in both Manhattan and in Hollywood to advance my acting career, thanks to a person who sat in the audience at UMBC for a show one summer and thought I had potential. The people I met at Totem Pole and UMBC formed my extended family and still do 40 years later. And without UMBC, and the confidence and the friendships I gained there, my life would have been much different.

I lived and breathed the theatre at UMBC, when I was not working my way through college as a rental agent. Professor Ivan Meckler taught me the science of music and that made me see science in a very different way.  I took a lot of trips to New York to get standing room tickets to see plays and thought that was a wonderful way to learn my craft by seeing other actors on stage.

What was my favorite place at UMBC? Well, I went to UMBC before the sidewalks were in, and before the four-way traffic light was installed!  (You would think I went there in a covered wagon — but a lot has changed over the past four decades.)

My favorite place was the Theatre Green Room.  I understand that the little building where we did so many wonderful productions is going to be torn down soon. But I was always there, working on costumes, running lines, building sets.  The Green Room is where actors rest before being called to the stage. But many of us would visit in there when there wasn’t a show on, since at the time I went to the school, it was basically a commuter campus. 

When I visited campus to shoot the Retriever Stories video, I could not believe that there was a Chick-Fil-A and a bank! And also so much student housing and apartments. My first apartment was at Howland Square in Westland Gardens. And when we were not on stage or back stage, we were bothering a poor waitress named Ceil at Shooks Bar in Arbutus. A crab fluff and a diet soda were a real treat back in the days!

What would I tell incoming freshman? Put down your cellphone and talk to the people around you.  Don’t just look at life through the screen of your iPhone.  Embrace the wonderful, diverse learning community.  Take walks, talk to people, and be in the moment.  Because those moments go so fast!  I am almost 63 years old, but I still look at the world like I did 40 years ago.  Take chances!  No one thought I would last a day in California.  I was making a movie with Shelley Winters within my first 2 weeks of landing in Los Angeles.  I stayed almost nine years.  Go to as many events on campus as you can, and try to think outside the box.  The more things change, the more they stay the same.  

The friendships and the relationships that you cultivate while you are at UMBC will last you the rest of your life, if you are as fortunate as I have been.  We went from hiding the fact that we smoked from our parents to hiding the fact that we smoked from our children to not smoking at all as per our doctors’ orders. Life is so short.  Don’t miss any of it. Have goals and focus on them, but take time for the sweetness of a spring afternoon to watch the redbirds and the robins.  Find balance and laugh as much as you can.  As Oscar Wilde said, “Life is too short to be taken seriously.”

Susan Mohr ’75, as told to Richard Byrne ’86 and Julia Celtnieks ’13

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