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Posted on: September 17, 2019

Tom and Jean Rahner to receive Order of La Florida

Presentation of The Order of La Florida

Presentation ceremony set for Monday, September 9 at 4:00pm

It is not an exaggeration to say that for more than sixty years, very few performances of live theatre in St. Augustine have not the beneficiary of a contribution by Tom and Jean Rahner.

Whether through their leadership to build a thriving theatre community, or by actively staging productions from the intimate to the grand, or working diligently to ensure that the performing arts have a place to perform, Tom and Jean Rahner are synonymous with live theatre in St. Augustine.

The Rahners’ extraordinary contributions to performing arts in the city will be recognized when the St. Augustine City Commission presents its highest award, the Order of La Florida, to the couple on Monday, September 9. The ceremony will start at 4 pm in The Alcazar Room, 75 King Street and will be available for live and on-demand viewing. 

Tom & Jean Rahner

The Rahners have drawn on their wide ranging talents to bring live theatre to the St. Augustine community in many locations and many forms. Together and as individuals their work includes every aspect of the theatre with each having spent time on stage, back stage and running the front of the house. They have each filled the role of actor, choreographer, stage manager, theatre manager, production designer, director, and producer and in doing so have enriched the cultural landscape of St. Augustine for decades.

Tom RahnerTom, a St. Augustine native, began performing as a puppeteer with his own one-man marionette show in his early teens. He also appeared in productions staged by the Artillery Lane Theater and St. Augustine’s Little Theatre. In addition to college productions, Tom was employed professionally in summer theatre and historic outdoor drama.

After graduation in 1957 from the University of Florida with majors in English and theatre, Tom joined the U.S. Army, but before his induction, he appeared with Jean’s brothers in the St. Augustine Little Theater production of Stalag Seventeen. Her brothers invited Tom to their home for dinner, where he met their sister, Jean. Within five months, Jean and Tom were engaged to marry. When Tom was deployed to Germany, Jean joined him there for their wedding in the summer of 1959.

After Tom’s discharge, the couple returned to St. Augustine and Tom took a teaching position with the St. Johns County School District teaching fifth grade for a year, followed by two years at St. Augustine High School.

With the approaching 400th anniversary of the founding of St. Augustine in 1965, one of the most ambitious projects being planned was by the 400th Anniversary Committee. Its goal was to build a 2,000 seat amphitheater in Anastasia State Park to host a summer-long historical outdoor drama about the founding of St. Augustine written just for the occasion.

In 1963 Tom took the position as the theatre’s manager overseeing construction and operations to ensure the facility would meet its opening deadline. That goal was met and in June 1965 Cross and Sword debuted at the St. Augustine Amphitheatre with Tom as the theatre’s general manager and also playing the comic lead in the play whose 100+ member cast included Jean.

In 1968 Tom took on the role as the director of Cross and Sword seeing it designated as Florida’s official state play. He held that position for a decade during which he and Jean performed lead roles and Jean served as the play’s marketing director until its last season in 1996.

It was also in 1968 that Tom joined the faculty of the newly opened Flagler College. It was the beginning of a more than three-decades-long relationship with the college and its Theater Department.

Jean RahnerThat same year Jean enrolled at the college as a part-time student and took a position in the college’s bookkeeping office. She completed her bachelor’s degree in Theatre Arts in 1978 and returned to the campus as an instructor and to direct a wide variety of student productions.

In 1973, famed motion picture and TV actor Richard Boone directed a production of The Dog In The Manger, by Renaissance Spanish playwright Lope de Vega. The local Bicentennial Commission produced the play in the Lightner Museum Casino as a precursor to the festivities of the 1976 celebration. Jean was cast in the leading romantic role of Countess Diana and Tom played her comic servant, Tristan.

While the college’s Theatre Department was growing, it had no theatre until 1975 when Tom designed and oversaw the construction of the college’s first theatre, a 185-seat facility in The Governor’s House, which served the college and the community for 13 years. As part of the college’s participation in evets commemorating the Bicentennial, Tom directed the theater’s first performance, The Beaux’ Stratagem, a play last performed 200 years before by British soldiers in St. Augustine.

In the early 1980s Jean, who had begun her performing career in 1959 with the St. Augustine Little Theater, was one of the founders of a newly created dinner theatre in St. Augustine at the Monson Motor Lodge. In those early years, Jean would simultaneously be working as actor, director, and manager, working both the front and back of the house at times on the same night. The dinner theatre filled a need for live theatre in the city and provided popular stage entertainment to both residents and tour groups into the 1990s.

For the centennial of the opening of the Hotel Ponce de Leon in 1988, now Flagler College, Tom wrote and performed, and Jean directed and produced Henry Flagler Remembers, a one-man show that was responsible for introducing the railroad and hotel builder to a wide audience that heretofore was unaware of his importance in Florida history. The production continued for twenty-five years in venues ranging from Marathon in the Keys to Tallahassee and as far afield as Louisville, Ky.

In 1993 Jean co-founded Limelight Theatre and, as with so many other theater projects in her experience, played many roles in the development of the theatre and its reputation for artistic quality. Having seen the Limelight Theatre prosper and gain a well-earned reputation as the premier live theater stage in St. Augustine, Jean retired in 2005 and launched A Classic Theatre, a semi-professional theatre established to bring classic, historic and original theatrical works to the community.

In 1991 Tom had yet another opportunity to participate in the design and construction of a theatre: the 800-seat, state-of-the art Flagler College auditorium. The auditorium was immediately put to use, and in 1996 hosted the premiere and six-week run of Flagler: Empire Builder of Florida, a musical written by Tom, composed by former resident Daniel Humbert and produced by Limelight Theatre, another successful collaboration by the Rahners.

After more than three decades as a member of the Flagler College faculty, Tom retired from teaching in 1999 and in retirement has turned his attention to making museum quality scale models. Tom has been named an Honorary Alumni of the college and received the designation of Associate Professor Emeritus, Theatre Arts.

In June 2019 Jean was named one of Flagler College’s 50 Alumni of Distinction marking the 50th anniversary of the college’s founding. A recipient of numerous awards for her work in theater, Jean continues to participate in the arts including her current service on the committee studying the possibilities of a cultural arts center in St. Augustine.

Performers, like teachers, can never know the full extent of their influence. A question answered in a classroom may not have its full impact until years later, and a moment experienced in a live theatre may not fully resonate until long after the play has ended.

Tom and Jean Rahner are both teachers and performers and while they may never know the full reach of their influence, their community is fully aware of their contributions to the arts and their leadership that has inspired and enriched their community. For all they have done for St. Augustine, the City Commission honors them with the Order of La Florida Award.

The Order of La Florida

The Order of La Florida was created by the city commission in 1975 to recognize a person “who over a long period of time has unselfishly devoted his or her time and talent to the welfare and betterment of St. Augustine’s citizens and heritage, who has exemplified the finest qualities of citizenship, and has contributed extraordinary services to the community.” Recipients must be 55 years of age and there may not be more than nine living recipients at any one time. A nomination originates with a member of the city commission and is presented to the city manager who then puts it before the entire commission for confirmation. The Rahners were nominated by Mayor Tracy Upchurch.

The Rahners will receive the 21st Order of La Florida award. Other recipients and the date each award was presented are:

  • Henry W. McMillan - 1975,
  • Herbert E. Wolfe - 1977,
  • John D. Bailey - 1977,
  • Albert C. Manucy - 1983,
  • Lawrence Lewis, Jr. - 1984,
  • Eleanor Phillips Barnes - 1986,
  • Xavier Lopez Pellicer, Sr. - 1987,
  • Clarissa Anderson Gibbs - 1987,
  • Luis Rafael Arana - 1988,
  • Eugene Lyon - 1988,
  • Edward G. Mussallem - 1994,
  • Jerome George Kass - 1997,
  • Kenneth Beeson - 2001
  • William L. Proctor - 2001
  • Michael Gannon - 2007
  • Kathleen Deagan - 2007
  • Frank D. Usina & Elizabeth K. Usina - 2009
  • H. L. “Herbie” Wiles - 2013
  • Robert B. Hayling - 2013
  • Carl Halbirt - 2018.

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