Valerie 'Val' Safron obituary: actor taught public speaking at Washington University | St. Louis Public Radio

Valerie 'Val' Safron obituary: actor taught public speaking at Washington University

Jul 20, 2010

Val Safron, who shared the stage with the likes of Tallulah Bankhead and whose acting credits included the 1990 Disney Channel movie, "Back to Hannibal: The Return of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn," died of pneumonia on July 13 at Mother of Good Counsel Home. She was 90 and had lived in University City and Richmond Heights for many years.

A memorial Mass for Mrs. Safron will be celebrated on Friday at St. Roch Catholic Church.

Theater was Mrs. Safron's first love, as she told the St. Louis Globe-Democrat in an interview in 1977. "It is the most creative and demanding of the arts, in which you're always expanding your horizons and the understanding of your fellow man."

Stage Hunger

Despite the necessity to do many things during her life, acting had always been and remained her singular goal.

"I wanted to be an actress," she told the Globe. "I was hungry for education and wanted a degree in drama. I figured if I didn't make it, I would teach."

Mrs. Safron was born Valerie Brinkman on Oct. 25, 1919, in a Cabanne neighborhood home now occupied by Jesuits.

Her early life was tinged with tragedy. Her father died of pneumonia when she was a toddler; her mother was struck and killed by a streetcar when she was 5. Her first husband was killed in an automobile accident, leaving her with two small children. She had her third child during her second marriage that lasted only 17 months. But the third time was the charm. In 1952, she married Joseph Safron, a remodeling contractor and art gallery owner, and they had five more children. He died in 1983.

After graduating from Visitation Academy, Mrs. Safron spent a year at Fontbonne College, then completed her theater degree at Washington University in 1941.

She performed in more than 40 productions in playhouses and with stock companies, including one in Greenwich Village in New York. Her professional work began with a stock company formed by St. Louisans in Charlevoix, Mich., which included Bob Pastene, who gained fame on Broadway, and Harry Gibbs, who became better known for his television cowboy persona, Texas Bruce.

Early in her career, Mrs. Safron appeared on stage with many who would become grande dames of Hollywood during the first half of the 20th century, including Eva Le Gallienne, Tallulah Bankhead, Joan Blondell and comedienne Mary Wickes, a Washington University alumna. She later provided vocal accompaniment to internationally acclaimed dancer Robert Small.

In 1990, she was cast as Aunt Lucille in "Back to Hannibal," which starred Hollywood notables William Windom and Paul Winfield. Much of Hannibal was filmed in a brief three-week period in St. Charles.

She told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in a 1988 interview that her most challenging film role was on the NBC TV series, "Unsolved Mysteries," where she played a wealthy widow who was burned to death by robbers. The flames that surrounded her were real, but she was unscathed.

In later years, she played Ruth in the TNT production of "Marvin's Room," the story of a leukemia patient who attempts to end a 20-year feud with her sister to get her bone marrow.

Myriad Careers

In addition to theater and films, Mrs. Safron performed in television and radio commercials. In television's infancy, she worked for KSD-TV, then St. Louis' only TV station, as a producer, writer and quiz show coordinator.

She spent a number of years as a social worker, a job that challenged her emotionally.

"I'd hear her on the phone at night asking friends for clothes for clients," said Mrs. Safron's daughter, Valerie Collins. The job "just got to her."

So she turned her social-service skills to teaching English to pregnant young women.

Mrs. Safron later became an administrative assistant in the drama department at her alma mater, Washington University. Sidney Friedman was then chair of performing arts at the university.

"She was a very warm and engaged and positive presence in everything she undertook," said Friedman, now an adjunct professor at Boston University. "She was an energetic, outgoing person."

She was also not satisfied to serve merely in an administrative capacity, although, by all accounts, she was very good at it. She quickly began acting in Wash U productions and continued to do so until her retirement. In one of her final roles, she was a member of the Wash U cast of "For Robert: On Order(s)," a surreal sketch of office workers descending into madness.

The Eternal Teacher

After raising eight children, who were always happy to run lines with her, working and performing, Mrs. Safron worked toward her master's degree at St. Louis University. She then began teaching public speaking at Washington University, where she remained for more than 20 years.

Her classes included law students. She used her theatrical skills to prepare them for courtroom drama through mock trials.

"She truly loved going back to Wash U and being a part of that community," Collins said. "It kept her young."

Mrs. Safron was in such great demand that she taught, willingly, until she was almost 80.

In fact, she remained, in spirit, a teacher forever. And forever an actor.

"She loved attention. And wanted to still be teaching her students," said Cheryl Griffin, a caregiver for Mrs. Safron at Mother of Good Counsel. "She couldn't accept that she was slowing going down. She'd pop up in the bed and say, 'What are we going to do next?' She was 90 years old and wanted to always be doing something."

Point of View

She was a woman with strong opinions, which she often shared via missives to the Post-Dispatch on everything from gambling boats (against), to the war in Kosovo and Middle East strife (insufficient media coverage).

In 1996, while teaching at Washington University, Mrs. Safron was among area speech experts who graded President Bill Clinton's State of the Union speech. She declared the speech "rambling" and gave it a "C."

"He didn't really declare a clear vision," Mrs. Safron said.

Mrs. Safron was a member of the National Speakers Association, the American Federation of Radio and Television artists, the Screen Actors' Guild and Thyrsus.

As a long-standing parishioner of St. Roch Church, she served on the parish council, was a lector, treasurer of the Women of St. Roch, sang in the church choir and tutored grade school students in speech.

In addition to her husband and her parents, George Brinkman and Phyllis Servis Brinkman, Mrs. Safron was preceded in death by her brother and two sisters, Phillip Brinkman, Georgia Rassieur and Monica Denny.

Mrs. Safron, who was known for saying, "It's a joy to be with you," and who surrounded herself with her family, is survived by eight children, Phyllis (Dennis) Meichel of New Jersey and Ingrid (Mark) Bremer, Fletcher (Rorey) Lane, Joseph Safron, Helen (John) Costello, Valerie (Dave) Collins, George (Mary) Safron and Mary (Marty Knoesel) Safron, all of St. Louis. She is also survived by 13 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.

Memorial Mass will be at 10 a.m. Friday (July 23) at St. Roch Catholic Church, 6052 Waterman Blvd., St. Louis, MO 63112.

Mrs. Safron made the decision to donate her body to Washington University 25 years ago.

Memorial contributions may be made to: Little Sisters of the Poor, 3225 North Florissant Ave., St. Louis, Mo. 63107; Mother of Good Counsel Home, 6825 Natural Bridge Rd., St. Louis, Mo 63121 or St. Roch Catholic Church (address above).

Gloria Ross is the head of Okara Communications and the storywriter for AfterWords, an obituary-writing and production service.

This article originally appeared in the St. Louis Beacon.