Prof. Alison Van Dyke, a senior lecturer in performing and media arts and a board member of the Cornell Prison Education Program died on Oct. 5 in London, England at 79 from natural causes.
Van Dyke was introduced to the world of acting by her father, Willard Van Dyke, a highly respected photographer and filmmaker, and her mother, Mary Barnett Van Dyke, a professor at the Yale School of Drama.
At Cornell, Van Dyke continued her parents’ legacy of teaching. She taught acting, speech and dialects for 37 years before retiring in 2014.
She later became the director of undergraduate studies in the Department of Performing and Media Arts. Mentoring students in department productions and beyond, Van Dyke made great impacts on her students.
Maria Dizzia, an actress and Tony award nominee, was advised by Van Dyke. At first uncomfortable with the idea of becoming an actor, Dizzia spoke about the immense impact Van Dyke had on her career. “Van Dyke treated me like an artist and that meant so much to me,” she said in an interview with American Theatre.
Van Dyke later received the Donna B. Paul Academic Advising Awards at a trustee-faculty dinner, an award celebrating professorial faculty, lecturers and senior lecturers who have demonstrated exceptional effectiveness as an adviser and/or mentor of undergraduates, either through a formal advising role or through other substantial interactions with individual undergraduates outside of the classroom, according to the Arts & Sciences website.
Education was an essential principle of her life’s work. In her teachings, she promoted a liberal arts education to her students, believing that “better-educated people make better performers.”
Van Dyke also promoted theater education through her involvement with the Cornell Prison Education Program at Auburn Correctional Facility, where she instructed inmates in acting classes. Before her retirement, she became a facilitator with the Phoenix Players Theatre Group, a program that fosters a transformative theater community through self-discovery.
She and her husband, William Smith Downing, a local architect and entrepreneur who passed in 2011, worked together to save the former Ithaca High School from demolishment. The couple bought the building and converted it into an eclectic collection of apartments, offices and restaurants.
The repurposed high school, now known as the Dewitt Mall, still displays remnants of its old character, with a cooperatively-owned bookstore that acts as a community resource to promote literacy and the faculty bathrooms and school library still labeled.
Community member Bob Proehl said Van Dyke and her husband were “the best landlords the [bookstore] could have asked for.”
The bookstore, Buffalo Street Books, expressed their condolences in a Facebook post. “Alison was so many things, not the least of which was an owner and generous supporter of this bookstore. We will miss her,” they said.
Outside of volunteering, she enjoyed gardening, traveling and reading. She is survived by her two grandchildren, two children and two brothers.