When Darla (Herman) Gaskill ’79 retired after 32 years at West Delaware Schools, former students and colleagues nominated her for KWWL’s “Someone You Should Know” segment, which features eastern Iowans who make positive contributions in their communities. She had planned to be an elementary teacher but switched her major to speech and theatre after being inspired by Jerry Wadian, associate professor of speech, who retired this year after 42 years with Upper Iowa University.
“My first semester at Upper Iowa, I took Introduction to Theater, at 8:00 a.m. and (Wadian) was the professor,” she recalled. “He captured my interest, and at the end of the term, I wanted to take any other classes he taught. I ended up acting in a few plays and being assistant director for another, as well as working back stage. Wadian was inspiring and helped me to develop confidence in myself. He welcomed everyone, taught everyone all aspects of theater, and believed in everyone. He almost always had a smile on his face and a positive attitude.”
Gaskill first attended Upper Iowa the summer between her junior and senior years of high school. During that special summer session, she took college composition and biology to get them out of the way. “It was a great opportunity,” she said. “Then, I went back to Upper Iowa after graduating from Edgewood-Colesburg High School.”
Gaskill had long been familiar with Upper Iowa. Her mother, Betty Herman, graduated from UIU while Gaskill was still in school in 1973. The family made several trips to campus, and enjoyed going there. Gaskill said the summer program sealed the deal for her, and she liked the feel of the Fayette campus after attending a smaller high school.
While at Upper Iowa, Gaskill participated in band and the campus newspaper, each for one year. She was also inducted into Alpha Psi Omega, the drama fraternity, and the Chi Delta Epsilon sorority. “Pledging to Alpha Psi Omega was a huge honor,” she said. “Several of my friends were pledging as well and we dressed up as characters like Peter Pan, Tinkerbell and Dorothy, and attended classes in costume.”
Some of her favorite UIU memories include Winter Carnival where the entire student body played games and participated in activities outdoors. There was one particular activity that Gaskill remembers well. “There was a race where the male students carried the female students on their shoulders,” she said. “There were also throwing contests. I love winter! When I was still teaching, my students came out on the front lawn of the high school with me to make snow angels before the school day started.”
Gaskill found Upper Iowa to be very welcoming. “It was a wonderful blend of rural Iowa students and students from Chicago and New York,” she said. “The diversity was an education in itself. There were a lot of places to hang out – in the dorms there was the lounge where we watch Happy Days together.”
After graduating in 1979, Gaskill worked for Northeast Iowa Community College in Manchester where she taught mentally-challenged individuals and high school dropouts pursuing their GED. Two years later, Gaskill began her career at West Delaware High School. There, she taught English, theater and speech. The first year she was the assistant coach for both the drama department and speech department.
In her second year at West Delaware High School, Gaskill took over head coaching duties for the speech team. Starting with around 35 students, the program has grown tremendously to over 100 students. “In the beginning there were only two coaches and now we have four positions shared by eight people who are all half time to better meet the needs of our students,” she said. “For many years we were recognized as one of the few schools that took a full slate of entries to both Iowa High School Speech Association (IHSSA) large group and individual contests.
“We take pride in working with all the other programs at the high school so students can participate in as many activities as possible.”
Gaskill says she has so many memorable experiences from her speech coaching years. “There was a student who allowed me to write what I thought was a fictional acting script about being the child of rape, and later I learned that it was her story and this was her way of working through it.
“We had a student once who was so quiet he only participated in mime when he started. He later went on to earn an All-State Speech nomination in after dinner speaking.
“Another student hated touching others and had to play the husband of a pregnant wife in a skit. We worked long hours to make it look real and comfortable when he touched his acting partner.
“I also remember well the young man who took over ALL the technical direction in television news. He researched by talking to other coaches and he bought his own equipment.
“I have so many great memories from coaching speech, and to be honest, I think I gained more than my students. I LOVED my job.”
Over the years Gaskill has taken away many great life lessons from her position of working with young people. “Ratings and winning are not the most important,” she said. “I have learned that I don’t have to know it all to coach it. I can rely on my students and their knowledge and ability as well as other adults. I have learned the importance of giving back by being an officer in the organization students participate in. It helps you to empathize and understand much more.”
Gaskill retired from teaching fulltime at the conclusion of the 2012-13 academic year to spend more time with her husband, David Gaskill, who is a 1978 Upper Iowa University alumnus, and their six grandchildren. This school year she is volunteering at West Delaware High School.
“I hope to help teachers and students succeed by continuing to mentor at-risk students, something I’ve been doing since 2010. I want to continue to help students believe in themselves and succeed,” she added.