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Volume 24, Number 9 — September 2017

Historical Society salutes Director of Outdoor Dramas

Cast of <em>Liberty!</em> congratulates director Jon Ruetz on his accomplishments.
Cast of Liberty! congratulates director Jon Ruetz on his accomplishments.

Jon Ruetz a "True Patriot"

July 19, 2007

ELIZABETHTON, Tenn. — As during all wars, there's much discourse today of patriotism in America. Each year, the last three weekends in July at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Area in Elizabethton, the early patriots of the new country are remembered and their efforts for life and the pursuit of liberty re-enacted.

Behind the scenes of the longest-running outdoor drama in the state of Tennessee is a modern-day patriot, says Jennifer Bauer, manager of SSSHA. "Jon Ruetz doesn't just talk about patriotism, he lives it. He knows and feels it, and has a deep sense of what our country has been through in its early days and until now," says Bauer, a cast member and a stage manager for Liberty! The Saga of Sycamore Shoals.

"You can sit and talk to him and know he's passionate about our history, about patriots, about the sacrifice all Americans should be ready to make," Bauer Says. "If he had been born in the 1700s and John Sevier called the militia, Jon would be the first across the shoals to fight for liberty."

In June at its 2007 Annual Meeting, the East Tennessee Historical Society (ETHS) in Knoxville recognized Ruetz's passion and prowess with its Award of Distinction "for directing and producing The Wataugans, an outdoor drama interpreting the historical significance of Sycamore Shoals."

Ruetz has brought the yearly spectacle, staged along the shoals of the Watauga River, to a fresh, new beginning. Bauer says, "Liberty! is not merely a recitation of history. It is much a commemoration of all of the lives of the people who were instrumental in founding the country we have today, those risk-takers. He has made it so real. People can relate to these textbook characters. He is able to make these people we learn about in school come to life. It amazes me."

ETHS Director Cherel Henderson has not only seen the outdoor drama, but has also been a guest star. "Some of the things Jon has done have really made it special," Henderson says. "I love the special effects, such as the fireworks during the battle that make it seem like guns and cannon fire and the dramatic music. It is fun, and the re-enactors do a great job, too."

One of the reasons why the 2007 award committee sought to recognize for the first time the direction of the drama, Henderson says, is because of Ruetz's multi-faceted contributions and efforts. "One of the things that really impressed us was that he has done so much for so many different aspects of the play," she says. "He has directed, written the script, worked on the brochures and programs and even written much of the music. He was selected for those many, many talents."

A former newspaper reporter and editor, Ruetz says his father, Gerhard, gave him a genuine appreciation for liberty. "He was just a little boy in Berlin when he witnessed the end result of tyranny. Among hundreds of thousands who suffered terribly, his family paid the ultimate price as World War II came to an end in Europe. He was determined to get to America, and struggled mightily to do so."

The immigrant father also gave his son a connection to Sycamore Shoals. While teaching at Elizabethton High School in the mid-1970s, Gerhard Ruetz was asked to create a presentation about the Transylvania Purchase. Gerhard researched and created the first modern incarnation of what would become the outdoor drama. Jon Ruetz recalls, "I can remember how he would shake his head in amazement and pride and say, 'Only in America.' "

"My dad was a good man, and that is probably the greatest gift a parent can give their child," Ruetz says. "I have never known a more dedicated patriot. And he truly knew what he was talking about " As long as his health permitted, he would come to Sycamore Shoals to see what we were doing and encourage us — a man who knew the true cost of liberty firsthand, and what life is like when freedom is gone."

Jon Ruetz was also a student of ETSU professor-emeritus and historian Dr. Ronnie Day who, along with musician and former ETSU faculty member Dr. Donald Conflenti, are credited with the first script and music for the outdoor drama. "Those good and talented men laid the groundwork for us," Ruetz says. "But there are so many more who have helped us build what we have, hundreds of gracious, good-hearted volunteers who have performed so memorably for the thousands of people who have bought tickets and supported us with their presence, great musicians and singers ..."

Loathe to shine the spotlight on himself, Ruetz has a long list of other foundation-builders: Scott Hardy, Brian Ponder and Garrett Harris — "lighting and sound geniuses;" special effects "wizards" Stan Widener and Mark Ramsey; the faculty of ETSU's Communication Department; and especially Ron Wickman, the assistant director, who is "dedicated, thoughtful and as dependable as the rising sun;" and Sycamore Shoals' former and present managers, Herb Roberts and Bauer.

Ruetz adds, "And then there is my dear mother, Juanita. I was at her elbow as she served our community for 35 years. She taught me how to direct, and produce. If I've done anything worthy of mention, I learned it from her."

Ruetz's passion and creative flair for history, however, have reached far beyond the banks of the Watauga, says Bauer and Jonesborough Mayor Tobie Bledsoe, who are quick to note that Ruetz has also written a historical play on the "stories" of the oldest town, is working on a similar venture for the Netherland Inn in Kingsport, and a forthcoming novel on the far-reaching efforts and conflicts of families and patriots of East Tennessee during the War Between the States.

Bledsoe says she still has a copy of Toward the Setting Sun, a play Ruetz wrote, directed and produced at Jonesborough Repertory Theatre in 2001. "He wrote a special part for my husband, Baxter, and another for me," says Bledsoe, who has also yearly guest starred in the Sycamore Shoals drama. "I still get the book out and read it every now and then and savor the whole thing. Everyone who saw Toward the Setting Sun was astounded at all the detail of the characters and how Jon brought them and the things that actually happened in Jonesborough alive. He has such a marvelous ability and a wealth of knowledge. He deserves the very best accolades for all that he does. He is talented and generous and just talking to him is a treat, because his everyday conversation is laced with marvelous tidbits of history. He's a real special person and is so important to our region."

As always, Ruetz demurs the accolades in memory and honor of those who have gone before. "No one can reach a worthy achievement alone," Ruetz told the ETHS board of directors. "Literally hundreds of people have played a part in the success of the outdoor drama " Each of them deserves appreciation for helping to preserve a national treasure. I want all of you to know that, awed by their lives and legacy, I humbly accept the Award of Distinction in memory of the original Wataugans and the Overmountain men, and all our volunteers, whose unflagging spirit and determination has helped to keep those memories alive."

Meanwhile, Ruetz's own unflagging efforts to tell the stories of the region continue on the field near the river at Sycamore Shoals each Thursday, Friday and Saturday evening in July, and he is looking forward to leading the charge next year to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the outdoor drama. And he, like his heroes and heroines of the past and present, will see it through to fruition.

"Of course, the average person who goes over to Sycamore Shoals to see the show has no idea of how much time and talent a person has to have to create and do something like that," Bledsoe says. "They have to have a God-given talent and then the time and energy. It's a cause, and Jon just gives it his all. I love to see him get the proper recognition. He never blows his own horn so others have to."

Liberty! is presented in the Fort Watauga Amphitheater at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Area. Gates open at 6 p.m. Special pre-show entertainment, featuring performers from throughout the region, begins each evening at 6:45. Tickets are $10 for adults; $9 for senior citizens; $8 for students; and children 6 and under are admitted free. For more information, call the park at 423-543-5808.

A! ExtraTopics: Family, Theatre