Howard Pape spent his next-to-last day alive installing a real tree—upside down, so that its roots would be the branches—for the set he’d helped design for Live Arts’ upcoming production of To Kill a Mockingbird, according to director Fran Smith. Performing such formidable tasks for the community theater was his creative outlet, say his family and friends.
His unexpected death February 28 at home at age 63 has left those close to him reeling, particularly at Live Arts, where the March 11 opening night for Mockingbird was fewer than two weeks away.
In the days following his death, at least a dozen people came in over several nights to paint, install lighting and build railings for the upstairs courtroom set, Smith says. “All of his carpenter friends showed up.”
Pape and his wife, Karen, have “underwritten almost every show I’ve done the past 10 years,” says Smith. “And he’s been the master carpenter on every one.”
Owner of Central Virginia Waterproofing and co-founder of the nonprofit Building Goodness, Pape discovered a passion for behind-the-scenes theater when his then-16-year-old son appeared in a Live Arts production of The Cripple of Inishmaan. “Howard wanted to keep an eye on him and he built the set,” says Karen Pape, president of the Live Arts board of directors. “He never left.”
Live Arts was a “touchstone for him,” she says, and he loved the variety of people in the huge community of volunteers who support the theater. “I’m a member of the least exclusive club in Charlottesville—the friends of Howard Pape,” she says. They met on the Corner in 1974 when both were students at UVA and were married for 38 years.
Pape understood carpentry and could build anything, says his wife. Designing sets “opened his world,” she says. “It was a gift someone gave him.”
Longtime friend Jay Kessler, who helped Pape install a pool as part of the set for a production of Metamorphoses, agrees. “He found an outlet away from construction and he focused it at Live Arts.”
Kessler describes Pape’s legacy as “easy, natural generosity” and of service. Both at Live Arts and Building Goodness, Pape would “give people what they need,” he says.
Pape went to Haiti more than 20 times and had a great affection for the people living there, who, despite their poverty, found a lot of joy in the present moment, says Karen Pape.
“That was one of Howard’s great gifts,” she says. “He always found a lot of joy in the present moment.”
“This was his place to be creative,” says Smith. After the arduous arboreal installation, Smith says she told her friend, “‘I could never do these plays without you. I love you.’ And I gave him a hug. At least my last words were of gratitude.”
At Live Arts, she says, “We have not yet realized the void.”
“His death has left a huge hole,” concurs Live Arts director Matt Joslyn. “He’s the kind of human who has a big presence wherever he goes.”
And while everyone is rallying for To Kill a Mockingbird, he says, “There’s a lot of sadness in the building.”