A 1960s Clark College student recalls his drama instructor, Hermine Decker (1908-1996), zipping around town in her red Opel Kadett. One can imagine a scarf billowing behind her.
Decker was a playwright who produced and won awards for stage productions. She also photographed the local community she loved. From childhood, she staged plays and practiced photography until her camera was stolen in college. So, she bought a Hasselblad, using it to photograph scenery and plays.
Born in Pullman, Decker attended Washington State University and studied drama. She acted in plays with another student, Edward R. Murrow, who became a famous broadcast journalist. The two were young sweethearts, and Murrow sent her letters confessing his love.
They never married because Decker thought he wouldn’t make a good husband. Later in life, they corresponded frequently, and he mentored her. When approached for details for Murrow biographies, Decker declined, keeping the romance discrete. She claimed in an oral history she burned the letters at Murrow’s request, but 28 letters and two telegrams resurfaced after her death.
An active director and dramatist, Decker won a 1946 award from Stanford University for “The Festered Lily,” one of several she would earn in her playwriting career. In the 1950s, she found a drama position at Clark College. A task master, she produced two plays a quarter at Clark, insisting each student perform in one and work in the production crew of the other. Eventually, she chaired the college’s speech and drama department until retiring.
Decker watched during the mid-1960s as Victorian houses fell in the wake of the Esther Short Industrial Renewal Project, crushing Vancouver’s architectural history. As the project advanced, it looked like none of the old houses near Esther Short Park might be saved. Robert Hidden, a former city councilman and a Fort Vancouver Historical Society member, argued for saving some of them. But just one stood — the Slocum House.
The former Charles Slocum family home rose alone above an empty city block. Purportedly Slocum, a well-to-do Vancouver businessman, built this house in 1867, but no evidence confirms that. Interestingly, a local paper didn’t report the laying of its foundation until 1877.
When Hidden showed the Victorian home to Decker, she told an interviewer, “It hooked me.” She immediately asked if it might hold a theater. Soon the two convinced the Vancouver City Council to keep the last historic house. In 1966, Gilmore Steel moved the Slocum House north one block to its current location at 605 Esther St. for free. The city of Vancouver owned the house and helped refurbish it, but stipulated that Decker’s theater company pay a modest rent and contribute labor.
In 1972, the Slocum House reopened as a theater. Decker directed Victorian and public domain plays to cut expenses. But after 50 years of delivering theater for the community, the little theater closed in 2012.
Today the Clark College drama department bears Decker’s name, as does an annual award for outstanding and dedicated service to Clark County theater.
Martin Middlewood is editor of the Clark County Historical Society Annual. Reach him at ClarkCoHist@gmail.com.