12th June 2009 at 01:00
Mary Brown 1929-2009

Mary Brown once entered a room to choruses of "Hello, Dolly". The all-singing, all-dancing greeting was a fitting tribute to a woman who left a legacy of song and dance to hundreds of schoolchildren.

For several generations of primary and secondary pupils, she was not just teacher, but also director, choreographer and gatekeeper to the world of musical theatre.

Born Mary Redfern in 1929, she inherited a love for the arts - literature, poetry, fine art and theatre - at an early age. An only child, she quickly developed the self-containment required for these pursuits.

But her lack of siblings also forced her to be outward looking. Her father was involved with local scout groups, and Mary willingly welcomed the boys into her home and her life. It was from this readiness to look outwards and to help others, that her desire to become a teacher grew.

By the time she finished school and enrolled in a West Yorkshire art college, her ambitions had crystallised. Though she did have the opportunity to work as a professional artist, she was determined to pursue a career in teaching.

So, in the early 1950s, she began her first teaching job, as art, English and drama teacher at Crookesmoor School in Sheffield.

But she continued to draw and paint. In particular, she painted watercolours: landscapes, buildings and still-life scenes. And she was a stalwart member of the local amateur operatic society.

It was there that she played Dolly Levi, the larger-than-life matchmaker of Hello, Dolly! And it was through the society that, in the early 1950s, she met Tom Brown. He was leading man to her leading lady; cast members knew something was up when their final clinch lasted longer and longer with each rehearsal.

Tom and Mary married in 1956. A son, Michael, was born in 1959, and a daughter, Angela, followed four years later.

Brown resigned her job when Michael was born. But in 1966 she was asked to help out at St Patrick's Primary, in Sheffield, as temporary cover for another teacher's sick leave. She did not leave until her retirement in 1982.

A Catholic herself, she was renowned in the local Catholic community: parents of new pupils regularly reminded her that she had taught them as children.

Having tried, fruitlessly, to engender enthusiasm for musical theatre among her own offspring, she found significantly more success with her pupils. Working in association with All Saints' High, a nearby comprehensive, she produced a range of school performances, from Oliver! and The Sound of Music to more challenging pieces such as West Side Story.

Over the years, hundreds of pupils were involved in her performances; several subsequently went on to pursue full-time careers in musical theatre.

Even after retirement, her desire to educate and inspire remained unabated. Shortly before her 80th birthday, she discovered that several trainees at her local hair salon were taking hairdressing NVQs. So she volunteered to provide English classes for them, helping them brush up on grammar and writing before the exams.

Her love of theatre was similarly undiminished. She continued to direct and produce shows for the amateur theatrical group, including a production of The King and I in which her husband played the troubled king. (Their children, in school at the time, derived slightly less pleasure from watching their father die several nights in a row.)

The joy that Brown found in musical theatre was completely uncynical: until her death, she regularly attended all performances at the Sheffield Lyceum. As far as she was concerned, there was no such thing as a final curtain.

Mary Brown died on March 6, aged 80. She is survived by her children, Michael and Angela, and by five grandchildren.

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