It was like someone flipped a switch in the fertile mind of the eager young “stand-in.”
“That’s the moment I became aware of speech, theatre and competition,” a grown-up Paula noted recently, almost 45 years later.
That creative light, one that gleamed softly at first, has long since burst into a steadily-burning flame—one that has fostered the successes of a TV actor, two others who are still in the early stages of their professional acting careers, still another who is a speech professor and published playwright, and several who teach speech and drama on the high school level.
Paula McConnell refers to them as “my legacies.”
But Paula, Marlow High School’s speech/drama instructor and sponsor of the Marlow Outlaw Speech Team (M.O.S.T.), is proud of all the young thespians, past and present, who have found their way into her classroom, and her heart, during the 31-plus years she has taught at MHS. In a sense, all of them are legacies.
Countless M.O.S.T. students have been medalists in state competitions during that time, and the team has garnered 20 regional Sweepstakes titles and six state championships.
Threading her way to MarlowPaula’s odyssey to our fair city started in March of 1960 in Cordell, when she was welcomed into the family of Clyde W. and Edna Mae Smith. She attended the local schools, playing the baritone in the band program, taking speech her senior year, and graduating from Cordell High in 1978 as valedictorian.
She enrolled at Southwestern Oklahoma State University in Weatherford, where she majored in math and minored in speech, and graduated summa cum laude with a BS in education.
“But I got so much more out of college than just straight-A’s,” she surmised. The “so much more” included a husband and a career.
While at SWOSU, Paula met an upperclassman from Duncan named Gary McConnell. They met while attending a two-man show on campus at the invitation of mutual friends. After a brief courtship, they broke up and Paula dated someone else for more than two years before realizing she didn’t love him. When the two separated, Gary “seized the moment” and asked her out, she said.
They became engaged in May of 1981, she graduated that December, and they married on January 16, 1982, in Cordell.
Gary had already earned his degree and returned home to Duncan, where he was hired by Mack Energy as an accountant. Paula did a bit of substitute-teaching that first spring in Duncan.
The Marlow schools began advertising for a half-day math teacher, and fortunately for Paula, MHS was also considering launching a speech program. She interviewed for the positions and was hired.
“And here I am 31 years later,” she said.
Although other schools have expressed an interest in her in the intervening years, she simply isn’t interested, she stated.
“Marlow hired me, they’ve encouraged me, they’ve supported me. I’m happy, and I feel like I’ve been successful. Why would I want to leave?”
But despite her obvious success as an instructor, Paula has an uncanny bent for putting things into perspective. Her mantra, for herself and her students, is “ten years from now, the trophies and medals will tarnish, but the memories will shine brightly forever.”
She demands teamwork and mutual encouragement from her M.O.S.T. students.
“Our team is built around moral support for each other,” she explained.
Many people don’t realize that Paula is also a math instructor, and a good one, at that.
This year, she teaches a couple of Algebra II classes in addition to two Drama I classes, another in advanced drama, and a course in stagecraft.
Her students present a play every fall and a showcase spotlighting their competition selections each spring. Both productions feature a daytime presentation for students and a public performance in the evening.
A splendid helpmateEven in college, Gary was interested in the theatre, and he assisted Paula—on a volunteer basis—with the drama department productions at the school, as well as certain competition entries, almost from the get-go.
The first time I encountered the two of them was in 1986, during a Duncan Little Theatre rehearsal of Annie. Paula was cast as the orphanage director, Miss Hannigan, and Gary as her brother Rooster—as underhanded and greedy a pair as you’re apt to find.
I’ll never forget their rendition of Easy Street. To the reporter who was attempting to put together a critique of the upcoming presentation, they literally stole the show.
At Marlow High, Paula found her husband’s assistance indispensable.
“His love was always theatre,” she attested. “Gary was the best director I ever knew. In fact, Marlow got two for the price of one. We were quite the dynamic duo.”
Their personal strengths were diverse—he was great at “blocking” and coaching duet entries, and her expertise tended toward characterization and interpretation. The synergistic result was a team who gave the students the best of both worlds.
They also made a great team at parenting, welcoming their only child, daughter Kasey, on October 15, 1992, and providing a safe, secure home for her.
Paula remembered how, when reading to her young daughter, she would use “voices” to make the stories come to life. It just wasn’t in the nature of the woman to read without dramatic flourishes.
Then in 2005, just days before her 13th birthday, Kasey’s safe, secure world was rocked to its foundations when her father died unexpectedly at the age of 47. Gary had stayed home from work that morning because of back pain, but then, he had pulled strenuously on scenery the day before.
He called Paula about mid-morning, asking her to take him to the ER. She made arrangements to be gone from her remaining classes and drove him to Duncan Regional.
From the time Gary was diagnosed as having had a major coronary until his death was only 20 minutes.
“I never got to say ‘goodbye,’” Paula recalled, her eyes filled with tears.
She picked Kasey up from school that afternoon and gave her the tragic news as soon as they got home. Almost immediately, friends began to arrive to express their condolences.
But even before their arrival, one of her students, senior Andrew Winburn, showed up to help with any needed tidying-up because, Paula explained, he knew she would be stressed if she had visitors and things weren’t just-so—a gesture demonstrating the respect and affection Paula’s students have for her.
A professional to the core, Paula has been a member of the OSSAA’s Class 4A speech committee for around 28 years now. She was named the OSSAA Speech Coach of the Year in 2006 and Marlow’s Teacher of the Year in 2000.
Characterizing herself as “incredibly organized,” she elaborated that in her world, everything is color-coded, indexed, and chronologically- and alphabetically-ordered.
KaseyGary’s death brought mother and daughter even closer.
Paula has been a staff member at Cameron University’s summer speech/drama/debate camp every year since 1993, serving as individual events coordinator most of that time. In the summer of 2006, she offered Kasey her father’s cell phone and a new camera (translation: bribed her) if she’d accompany her mom to the speech camp.
The girl accepted, but Paula said, “I think she came to look after me.”
Kasey had grown up around speech and drama, pedaling her tricycle up and down the MHS auditorium aisles as a child, but at the camp that summer, she discovered she actually liked the performing arts and waded in with both feet. Her freshman year, she transferred to Marlow and became actively involved in M.O.S.T., ultimately bringing home 10 medals from state competitions.
“One of my proudest moments was when my daughter was standing on the state stage,” Paula attested. “Kasey’s my life. There’s no one closer to me.”
The two of them attend church together at St. Paul’s UMC in Duncan whenever Kasey’s home from college, and they’ve been to Disneyworld “so many times,” Paula admitted, “that I’ve lost count. . . .I think it’s 12.”
Since graduating from Marlow High in 2011, Kasey has been attending the University of Central Oklahoma, pursuing a degree in fashion marketing with a minor in organizational communication.
Although the separation has been tough for Paula, she indicated that she has always encouraged her daughter to be involved in campus activities.
“In my big scheme of life, I’m going to move where Kasey settles,” she observed. “I want to be a ‘granny nanny.’”
Kasey has established one rule, however; Mom must live at least two blocks away.
Also included in Paula’s script for her future is the possibility of exiting stage left from her educational career and entering stage right to embark on an entirely new one.
Whatever she chooses to do, one thing’s certain—she’ll do it with “voices.”