Born in Seattle, Washington just as the US would enter World War II, drama director Helen Rae Murphy belongs to that shrewd generation that made the most of whatever came its way--whether that was responding to war-era rationing by softening butter wrappers as a young girl for use as wax paper or overcoming trials in directing 27 years of plays at Lansing Catholic High School (43 years, and still going, at St. Gerard). 

Fear of a west coast bombing after Pearl Harbor sent Dr. Raymond Laige, his wife Helen, and their two children Fran and six-month-old Helen Rae from Seattle to Michigan on a journey entirely by train. Settling in Grosse Pointe, Helen Rae attending Catholic schools. Theater, she admits, was her first love and provided solace when a bout of polio to her hip kept her restrained in her childhood basement. There, she and her sister played with her wooden marionette on a large wood chest that served as her first stage. She would later use that same chest-turned-stage to put on performances for neighborhood children. When her parents denounced any thought of her pursuing theater in the Big Apple, she enrolled at Marquette University where she received her B.A. in Speech Pathology and Audiology (1963) and immediately began teaching public school children with speech impediments in Warren. She later took a leave of absence to get her M.A. in the same domain from the University of Michigan before returning to the same schools. 

Helen Rae and Michael MurphyHer 1966 summer marriage to Dr. Michael Murphy brought her to Lansing, where the new Mrs. Murphy picked up her teaching that fall of 1966—work that had her moving between various public schools each day of the week. Learning that she was with child, she completed the 1966-1967 academic year before stopping teaching. She and Dr. Murphy would then have six children, each enrolled at St. Gerard and subsequently at Lansing Catholic High School.

St. Gerard School began an electives program in the late 1970s and various parishioners freely volunteered their talents to help the students. The school contacted Helen Rae to teach crochet and knitting, but she had a different idea: theater. Space was an issue, as was the lack of materials, but she assured the school, “I don’t need anything, just a little closet where I could put my things.” They agreed and gave her a closet that had previously been used for photography. 

In August 1979, she crossed the line of between “bystander” as a frequent theatergoer and engaged in the production of her passion with the official start of her theater program. With St. Gerard church choir director Theresa Lud and organ player Mrs. Redmond, she began implementing music into performances. Widely respected in the Capital area and now making a name for her theater program, she found herself the recipient of community hospitality. Non-Catholics and Catholics alike slowly began donating clothes, objects, and their talents to be used in her plays. Capital Furs alone donated tens of thousands of dollars of abandoned furs—minks, foxes, and marabou—to her. St. Gerard School followed suit, expanding her small closet into an extensive four rooms in the basement plus stage-area. Given her costume collection, Helen Rae was called in 1991 by the then director of Lansing Catholic’s theater program to help with the beards for that year’s performance. When the director fell ill, Helen Rae took the helm of the high school’s theater program. Within years, the high school’s performances were widely known in theater circles both in the city and throughout the state for her attention to detail and the combination of students with professionals through her personal social network. For example, when she felt a ballroom dance exceeded her choreographer’s competencies, she contacted a ballroom dancer friend to help her students. When she wanted a student acting as a French maid to actually Helen Rae on stagesound French, she had a French-speaker create pronunciation tapes for her student. Professional hairdressers designed hairstyles and makeup designs, and then actually worked on the students alongside parent volunteers. When a non-Catholic community member learned she would be putting on Beauty and the Beast, he loaned her his medieval suit of armor, which she wore on stage for the battle at the castle per her tradition to always join her students on stage. 

The nearly three decades of teaching were not without their struggles. Theater has never had robust funding, so filling seats was critical to ensuring enough funds would be there for the following year’s program. When volunteer donations and school funding was not enough, she secretly gave her own funds to ensure everything met her exacting standards. In 2000, the careless flick of an unextinguished cigarette butt caused a fire to ravage through St. Gerard School. While Helen Rae was in Florida, totally unaware of the fire, Ann Forkin, one of Helen Rae’s volunteers for years, managed to get to the school upon learning of the fire, broke through the firemen, entered the fire, and removed the logs Helen Rae kept of every costume and prop. Everything but what was already removed for her current play was destroyed: over 500 clothes, wigs, hats, shoes, working instruments, and props. She shortly found herself surrounded by volunteers and donors who slowly but surely helped her rebuild the lost costumes, including her longtime seamstress helpers Ann Forkin and Karen Kasprzak. 

In 2019, then-principal of Lansing Catholic informed Helen Rae that the school would be going in another direction and she retired from the high school. By that time, Helen Rae had taught 1,054 students at Lansing Catholic and the number at St. Gerard, 1,268 students, is still growing. Although an unorthodox path, it really is no surprise that a speech pathologist would become a theatrical director helping thousands of students find their voice through the arts. Time will only tell how truly difficult it will be to fill her deceptively small, elegant heels.