UIC Alumni Award winner a driving force in theatre program
In 1963, when 26-year-old Bill Raffeld began teaching at the University of Illinois’ Chicago Undergraduate Division at Navy Pier — forerunner of today’s University of Illinois at Chicago — students called him Mr. Bill.
In subsequent decades, he became Willie, then Uncle Bill and, most recently, Papa Bill, the title favored by 21st century UIC Theatre students.
“As I got older, I guess I became more of a grandfather figure,” Raffeld jokes. “Whenever we might have crossed paths, though, I hope the students feel they got something substantial and something they could carry on.”
For more than 50 years, Raffeld played a prominent role in the UIC theatre department, helping to propel its rise into one of the region’s elite academic programs. He was honored with the 2015 UIC Alumni Distinguished Service Award Sept. 18, presented by UIC Chancellor Michael Amiridis at a luncheon on campus.
“This has been something I’ve loved doing, and I’ve never wanted to be anywhere else,” says Raffeld, associate professor emeritus in the UIC School of Theatre & Music since 2011 and resident of Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood.
A Navy Pier student in the mid-1950s, Raffeld acted in productions by founding theatre director Francis Goulson before earning his undergraduate and graduate degrees from the Pasadena Play-house College of Theatre Arts in California. When he returned, “it was pure serendipity.”
Overcoming budgets, bureaucracy and politics, Raffeld created a distinguished training ground for professionals.
“We’re not a stop on the way to somewhere else,” he says. “UIC means something to students who want solid training, and that’s why we have students coming to us from all over the country.”
From curriculum and fundraising to internships and alumni relations, Raffeld’s influence can be found throughout the department.
He taught courses, directed performances, initiated international exchange programs, and leveraged his ties with Chicago’s theatre scene to get students experience in acting, design, production, theatre management and education.
“There’s a family of UIC-trained theatre students out there affecting their part of the world, and that gives me a wonderful sense of pride,” he says.
Raffeld founded the UIC Theatre & Music Alumni Association and the Old World Theatre Company, a UIC alumni-dominated group. “All these years later, it’s still wonderful to be together,” he says.
In 1987, alumni, colleagues and friends established the William F. Raffeld Award, an endowed fund to support UIC theatre students and celebrate Raffeld’s work. The award builds on a scholarship established by Raffeld’s family.
“It’s a real honor for me, yes, but it also means opportunities for students, which is the real joy,” he says.
Growing up on Chicago’s South Side, Raffeld began writing shows and staging productions in grade school, corralling neighbors to perform and watch. A life in theatre was all he ever wanted, he says, and UIC became the place to fulfill those dreams.
“I never had to wake up and ask myself what I wanted to do,” he says. “Rather, the question was always if I’d have enough time to accomplish everything I wanted to do.”