Magazine / People

Late theater grad Florence Sikes left money to help aspiring DU actors

Florence Sikes donated almost $250,000 to DU's theater department to support the hopes and dreams of aspiring performers. Photo courtesy of Patsy Campbell

Florence (Dunning) Sikes (BA theater ’55, MA theater ’60) dedicated her life to helping others achieve success in theater and performance.

Sikes — who died in July 2009 — was so passionate about her vocation that she donated a portion of her estate to DU’s theater department to support the hopes and dreams of aspiring performers.

Sikes’ gift amounted to almost $250,000. Each dollar will be matched by a DU fund that supports the performing arts.

“We are humbled and encouraged by this support,” says Anne McCall, dean of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences. “It is a great example of philanthropy for us all.”

The department plans to use the money for experiential programs to support students’ professional growth. Programs receiving funds could include senior theater projects and mentoring sessions and workshops with professional actors, producers, directors, choreographers, playwrights, designers and casting agents.

“What was near and dear to Florence’s heart was the ability to affect students by providing experiences,” says theater department chair Rick Barbour. “We will weave her into our story. People will get to know the name ‘Florence Sikes,’ and there will be a constant awareness of her permanent generosity.”

Sikes was born in 1933 to members of a traveling theater troupe in the Midwest, but during the Depression, Sikes’ parents were forced to leave the show. As a young girl, Sikes performed comedy acts with her father to entertain troops preparing to fight overseas.

Sikes’ passion for drama carried over into high school and college. While studying at DU, Sikes discovered her talent for technical theater and worked on plays including Three Men on a Horse and Bernadine.

After graduating, Sikes taught speech, English and theater at Denver’s West High School, then at schools in Texas, Florida and California.

“She was very strict but was beloved by the kids she had in the theater,” says Patsy Campbell, Sikes’ sister. “They just loved the fact that she was such a great director.”

In 1977, Sikes became a speech coach for TV news anchors, traveling around the country to help  improve their diction and presentation.

“I think she considered her true memorial to be the people who had benefited from her teaching and direction,” Campbell says. “She really wanted to be remembered as somebody who was dedicated to excellence in the theater and presentation of news.”

Editor’s note: An earlier version of the story listed an incorrect high school. Ms. Sikes taught at Denver West High School.

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9 Comments

  1. Gary Mullennix says:

    Florence Dunning made an amazing contribution to many of us
    at West High in Denver during the late 1950’s. Plays, drama class, vaudeville and a real interest in the lives of her students made all the difference. A wonderful sense of humor coupled with an academic demand she made the student believe was within his capability separated her from most teachers and human beings. I was one of the lucky ones. Gary Mullennix 1958

  2. Daniel Shrader says:

    In 1958 our beloved “Flo” Dunning was a drama teacher at West High School in Denver. She was a great teacher and a wonderful friend. I am saddened by her passing. None of us knew.

    D. H. Shrader, B.S.B.A. D.U. 1963

  3. Flo was an inspiration to many of us at West Denver High School. We did plays like “Bernardine”, “Out of the Frying Pan” and “The Trial of Lizzie Borden” from the Fantastiks in our All School Show. She gave us all a love of theatre, performing and staging that has stuck with us throughout life. I still have my certificate signed by her installing me in Troup 151 of the National Thespian Society. Tough taskmaster but loving coach. I’m happy she is still helping those interested in theatre. She will be missed.

    Jim Hardy
    West Denver High School
    1956-1958

  4. JERRY MUNSEY says:

    FLO’S FIRST JOB AFTER GRADATION FROM D.U. WAS A WEST DENVER HIGH SCHOOL; NOT NORTH.
    SHE WAS A WONDERFUL TEACHER AND FRIEND AND THE WORLD HAS TRULY LOST A NOTABLE CHARACTER
    AND WILL BE A LESS INTERESTING PLACE. WE CONSIDERED FLO TO BE A MEMBER OF THE
    WEST HIGH CLASS OF 1958.

  5. Louise (Stone) Woodward says:

    I was “Miss Dunning’s” student assistant for a couple of semesters at West High where she taught (not at North). I hope I helped her some. I did try.

    But in return, she taught me by example, respected me, mentored me, loved me, laughed at me and taught me to laugh at myself. At every reunion, someone would always ask if anyone had seen her or knew where she was. No luck. We missed her. A lot.

    “Miss Dunning”– Flo–we will miss you as long as we live.

  6. Amber D'Angelo Na says:

    Thank you all for sharing your comments and memories about Florence Sikes. I updated the story to reflect that she taught at Denver West High School. Thank you for bringing this to my attention.

  7. Beverly (Feyerherm) Schneider says:

    Ms Dunning was an inspiration to many of us in our drama activities at Denver West High School. She encouraged us to participate by making it “fun” as well as a learning experience. Because she was relatively close to our age, we felt she understood us as individuals and all of us enjoyed being a part of the plays she directed. She helped create the good times and good memories that still remain with us today.

  8. Cherry (Wurtsmith) Emerson, Ph.D. says:

    I remember Ms. Dunning, and for some reason a picture of Jim Hardy and me in a production in high school (1956-58)at Denver West High School, sticks in my mind. I generally did speech and costuming and stagecraft, but “Flo” convinced me to play a “gun moll” in the production, I remember her asking (joking) “You do know how to play a gun moll?” She asked because I was involved in hanging around and participating in gangs on the west side. I also worked in costuming class making the costume for the “cool girls” can-can line, for a holiday production. Drama and Speech was the only classes that held my interest in high school, but the “you can do it,” she taught me stayed with me.

  9. Flo Sikes was my favorite teacher in high school. My mother once sat next to a lady at some play I was in, and complained that she was so tired of hearing about Mrs. Sikes that she could scream. Turned out the lady next to her was Flo’s sister. Flo established the foundations for everything I’ve done since, and not just theatrically. She was a huge personality, had no truck with “rationalization” and I loved her dearly. When I graduated college, she and her husband Davis, got me a job as Equity stage manager in Jacksonville. They opened their house to me, their friendship, and their support. Only thing about Flo was, she never answered letters and we lost touch. However, the day she died I was in Bolsena, Italy, and I had a vivid and wonderful dream about her. Flo, you were the best… still are.

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