Josefina Niggli earns recognition for her place in WCU history

When Steve Carlisle ’73 arrived on the campus of  Western Carolina University from his hometown of Hendersonville in the fall semester of 1966, he had his future mapped. “I was a history major, wanting to go back to my local high school and become a basketball coach and history teacher,” Carlisle recounted. “That was my dream.”

An encounter with Western Carolina drama instructor Josefina Niggli rerouted those dreams. Carlisle stopped thinking of theater as a hobby and committed himself to acting. More than 40 years later, Carlisle has worked with Susan Sarandon, Paul Newman, Burt Reynolds, James Garner and Jack Lemon, among others.

Niggli had that effect on people. Small in stature – perhaps 5-foot-2-inches in heels – Niggli arrived at Western Carolina in 1956 as an established novelist, poet, screenwriter and playwright. “Theater was a special thing to her, and she made it a special thing to us,” said Luther Jones ’74 MAEd ’82, a former student who made a career in theater, film and television; his movie credits include “Patch Adams,” “My Fellow Americans” and “The Legend of Bagger Vance.”

A Woman of Many Roles


Born in Monterrey, Mexico, in July 1910 to parents of European descent, Niggli earned her undergraduate degree from Incarnate Word College in San Antonio in 1931 and a master’s degree in drama from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1937.

She spent the 1930s and 1940s active in radio, television and film, and writing plays, short stories, novels and screenplays. A forerunner in the literature of Mexico, Niggli wrote in English and revealed Mexican life from an insider’s perspective. She once wrote: “When I was a young kid, starting out as a writer, I had a shining goal. I was going to present Mexico and the Mexicans as they had never before been presented.”

In 1945, Niggli published “Mexican Village,” a collection of 10 short stories; parts of it were adapted into “Sombrero,” a 1953 major motion picture from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer starring Ricardo Montalban and Cyd Charisse. Niggli co-wrote the screenplay, and two later novels also were well received.
Education was important to Niggli. She was a graduate of the Columbia University School of Journalism, received radio training at New York University and studied acting in Europe. She held positions at Chapel Hill and the University of North Carolina at Greensboro before joining the faculty of Western Carolina.

Cullowhee’s Grande Dame

Niggli, who taught journalism in addition to drama, made a big impression at the mountain school. Chain-smoking Marlboro cigarettes, clicking her fingertips like castanets, offering stage direction from the seat of a red recliner positioned in the theater aisle, she was fascinating, imperial, dramatic, magical, revolutionary.

Niggli introduced a climate of professionalism in WCU’s theater program that allowed her students to graduate highly trained and ready to work. Her classes studied classical acting, dramatic structure, period and style. They studied Shakespeare, Molière and Ibsen. They performed contemporary Broadway hits. Niggli’s productions were so popular that – despite a two-lane, winding road west of Balsam – people drove from Asheville to attend.
Niggli retired in 1976 and remained in Cullowhee. She died in 1983, leaving money, property and personal effects to the university. To date, a theater arts scholarship Niggli funded has awarded more than $126,000 to 128 students.

A Turn in the Spotlight

Now, WCU is formally recognizing Niggli’s accomplishments. For the 2009-10 academic year, the Office for Undergraduate Studies is coordinating a series of interdisciplinary, campuswide events under the umbrella title of “Josefina Niggli: A Celebration of Culture, Art and Life.” University centers and academic departments have committed to integrating Niggli into coursework and coordinating projects in her honor (see sidebar). The university also has named her the recipient of a posthumous honorary doctorate.

For years, Jones, now the University Theatre’s designer and technical director, and Carlisle, associate dean of the Honors College, have discussed recognition of Niggli beyond renaming the Little Theatre in her memory in 1984. “I just thought it was time to recognize her accomplishments,” Jones said. “I don’t think the significance of her work was understood at the time she was alive.” Agrees Carlisle, “She really was ahead of her time, and we didn’t know how to appreciate her. It has taken us 50 years to catch up to this woman.”

The effort took some time to gain momentum, but ultimately the timing was perfect, said Glenda Hensley, coordinator of first-year experiences with the Office for Undergraduate Studies. The university already had instituted its plan of engaged, cross-disciplinary learning, and a committee had formed under the leadership of Carol Burton ’87 MAEd ’89, assistant vice chancellor for undergraduate studies, to expand the humanities. It was Jones who approached the committee about honoring Niggli. “We agreed this would be an amazing way to institute a campuswide thematic year,” said Hensley. Although she earned degrees in costume design and drama education elsewhere, Hensley took several classes at WCU, and once encountered Niggli as a guest speaker. “She was such a lady,” Hensley recalled. “I remember somebody escorting her up the steps of the Little Theatre, and she sat in the famous wingback chair.”

The recognition comes during the 100th year since Niggli’s birth and amid growing academic interest, with a biography and two compilations of Niggli’s work published since 2007. A January “celebration premiere” was intended to “really kick up attention for the spring semester,” Hensley said. It included an invited reception and a performance by students and Kathleen Wright, professor emeritus of communication. Wright, whose tenure briefly overlapped Niggli’s, portrayed “Miss Niggli,” as her former students still call her, in a costume created by Leeanne Deaver ’09.

Deaver, of Canton, studied costume design at WCU with the help of a Josefina Niggli Scholarship. She lives in New York and occasionally works for famed costume designer William Ivey Long. She volunteered to design the Niggli costume – a black-and-pink dress and “an elegant little black shawl” – because she wanted to repay Niggli’s generosity. “I was really thankful that I had the opportunity to create the costume,” Deaver said. “A lot of students get the scholarship, but not all the students get the opportunity to show appreciation for it.”

While the yearlong program is primarily to demonstrate Niggli’s ongoing legacy to current students – “We want to keep learning front and center,” Hensley said – one event is of special interest to alumni: a reunion and performance planned for July 8-10. “Since the actual anniversary of her birth is in July, we decided that was a good time to allow alums and others who were devoted to Ms. Niggli to come to campus,” Hensley said. The centerpiece of the weekend will be a performance (the location is yet to be determined) directed by Carlisle and featuring Niggli’s former students. “This is going to be an inside look at how Josefina affected the lives of her former students,” Carlisle said. “It’s going to be a love-in – laughter, tears, hugging. These people are just itching to get back here and honor her.”

Many participants learned of the event through the social networking site Facebook. A link to that page can be found on WCU’s Josefina Niggli site, niggli.wcu.edu. “The Facebook page had more than 100 fans in less than two weeks. People found it pretty quickly,” Hensley said. “We have managed to create a terrific communication network.”