Longtime Speakers Bureau Member, Beloved Character Actor Passes Away

Orval Van Deest, the longest-tenured member of the South Dakota Humanities Council Speakers Bureau, passed away in February 2018.

Orval Van Deest, the longest-tenured member of the South Dakota Humanities Council Speakers Bureau, passed away in Feburary 2018.

Orval Van Deest, who joined the SDHC Speakers Bureau in 1983, passed away Feb. 5, 2018. 

For the first time in 35 years, the "V" section of the South Dakota Humanities Council Speakers Bureau roster is empty. Also destined for emptiness are the South Dakota libraries, theaters, classrooms, ballrooms that were visited by A.C. Townley, C.J. "Buffalo" Jones, Capt. Jack Crawford and Yukon Bill during the past 35 years.

Dakota State University professor emeritus and character actor extraordinaire Orval Van Deest, by far the longest-tenured member of the SDHC Speakers Bureau, passed away Feb. 5, 2018. Van Deest portrayed a coterie of colorful characters through the Speakers Bureau beginning in 1983.

As a "Chautauqua" actor, he taught lessons of history through his performances from real people like Hugh Glass to fabricated characters like "Prairie Dog Frank. While the cleverly devised personas he developed to showcase South Dakota history are gone now, too, they'll live on in the memories of those who watched the one-man theater troupe march his way through the Midwest for 35 years.

A Life Devoted to Love, Acting, Humanities

As was shared in his obituary, Orval "devoted his life to his family and friends and to bringing knowledge, enrichment, and enjoyment in education and the arts and humanities to his native state." In fact, his love for acting was eclipsed only by his passion for his wife, Violet. She inspired him daily, both before and after her death in 2002. A frequent SDHC donor, Van Deest dedicated every gift since 2002 to his late wife.

Van Deest dedicated his life to the humanities to the very end, having submitted his three 2018 Speakers Bureau programs several weeks ago. A "throwback" in both his portrayals and his own life, Van Deest didn't use email. Instead, he sent handwritten notes and printed photos in a "do not bend" envelope adorned with block letters: "Please Return."  

We'll miss getting those envelopes. And we'll miss Orval.

In his memory, here is a feature story about him from our 2015 program catalog. Consider it a throwback to a true throwback.  

Orval Van Deest, the longest-tenured member of the South Dakota Humanities Council Speakers Bureau, passed away in Feburary 2018.

Originally printed in March 2015.

Orval Van Deest was never able to rid himself of the acting bug.

It bit him permanently one hot summer day in Madison during the early 1980s, when a traveling Chautauqua group visited the Dakota State University campus. Van Deest saw actor Dave Miller play a railroad baron, and marveled at Miller's ability to coolly pull off the characterization while wearing heavy garb in the sweltering heat.

Orval Van Deest, the longest-tenured member of the South Dakota Humanities Council Speakers Bureau, passed away in Feburary 2018.

"I said, you know, this might be interesting," explained the 81-year-old Dakota State University Professor Emeritus, who worked at DSU as both an administrator and a teacher. Orval, who was active in theater from seventh grade through his college years, was familiar with the humanities system.

He remembered South Dakota Humanities Council (formerly South Dakota Committee on the Humanities) founder Jack Marken approaching him in the 1970s to gauge support from faculty members for a statewide humanities organization, which was eventually created in 1972. With his interest sparked by Miller's performance, Orval submitted an application in 1983 to join the fledgling organization's Speakers' Bureau (created by Michael Haug) along with his wife, Violet.

More than 30 years later, the most veteran member of the SDHC Speakers' Bureau has performed in 50 different communities in 39 of the 66 counties in South Dakota and has acted in the surrounding states of North Dakota, Minnesota, Nebraska and Kansas with the Mountain Plains Chautauqua.

"You gotta be crazy to do it," he said, chuckling. Orval has traveled thousands of miles to portray a litany of characters such as American political organizer A.C. Townley, author Sinclair Lewis, Prairie Dog Frank, Hugh Glass-Mountain Man, C.J. "Buffalo Jones," adventurer and frontier scout Capt. Jack Crawford, gunslinger Old "Paps" Ducharme, axe-wielding Swede Swenson (with Paul Bunyan), Count Von Nibbling (half-brother to Dracula), Yukon Bill and many others.

Seeing What Works

Since the beginning, Orval was determined to "keep changing to see what works." He thoroughly researches each character. Some take more effort than others.

For example, Orval created Prairie Dog Frank, which meant he had to start from scratch and sketch an original characterization rather than research historical figures.

He has performed in front of thousands of audience members of all ages. His fondest memories are of traveling and performing with Violet, who presented her own Native American beading programs and also partnered with Van Deest for performances.

In 1997-1998, the pair toured "Black Leather Satchel," a medical mini-Chautauqua which they presented in eight South Dakota communities. Orval portrayed Valentine McGillycuddy, Army Surgeon, while Violet created Grace C. Fillius, Head Nurse at the Canton, SD Asylum for Indians.

'Forging Ahead'

Orval Van Deest, the longest-tenured member of the South Dakota Humanities Council Speakers Bureau, passed away in Feburary 2018.

Violet was a treasured component of Orval's traveling act. Not only was she a talented performer – and Beading Artist – in her own right, but she also played a significant behind-the-scenes role. She would do pre-show "recon," gauging the size of the audience and collecting other details that were helpful to Orval, who stayed behind the curtain to make a proper "in-character entrance."

The two traveled together from 1983 until 2002, the year Violet passed away. Orval said he initially struggled to keep touring, but was encouraged by a friend's advice.

"He said, 'take a step back and think about it. The worst thing you could do is step away from it. Take your time and figure it out.'" Orval decided to continue, and now, at 81 years old, he is still going strong.

So what inspires him to continually forge ahead?

'Off the Cuff'

Describing himself as a "frustrated actor" who could never rid himself of the desire to perform, Orval says ego is a partial inspiration, as any actor would admit. Naturally, he enjoys performing in front of crowds. From small groups of children to tents of 400 people, he's seen his share of excited audiences.

Orval fondly recalls conventions where adults would attend his performance because the concurrent non-Chautauqua programming for older audiences was "too boring." He also enjoys interacting with people, especially children, and meeting the challenges that arise during his journeys. Besides traveling far and wide and in some cases braving bad weather (such as a 600-mile trip to Harding County in a blizzard many years ago), Orval is never sure what to expect when he steps on stage.

Each performance is "off the cuff," meaning no scripts are involved. He often runs into new questions.

"Someone there has always seen something you haven't seen. But that's where the fun is," he said. Perhaps most importantly, Orval enjoys the opportunity to deliver humanities programming to small communities that may otherwise not have the chance to see a live actor.

"We do some good carrying humanities to these places," he said.