25 Years of Delighting Theatergoers
Nothing compares to live theater. And no one was more devoted to live community theater than trucking company magnate Tom Nehl. A frequent actor in local productions, Tom knew full well that keeping the doors open takes money, even though the actors are all volunteer. In 1993, he established the Tom Nehl Fund at The Community Foundation to fund production costs over & above local theater’s normal operating budget.
Since then, the Fund has fulfilled annual grant proposals from local community theaters, helping them to procure costumes, special lighting, and musical accompaniment, as well as to improve the theatergoing experience for patrons. Individual grants of a few thousand dollars each to the theaters have added up to more than $1 million since the Fund was created. And although Tom died in 2012, his endowed fund continues to make grants in perpetuity.
“He’s kept us going,” said Barbara Wells of Orange Park Community Theatre.
“When we needed bells for The Sound of Music, or the big puppet Audrey for Little Shop of Horrors, or a new sound board, we wrote a grant request to the Tom Nehl Fund.”
Tom both acted in and patronized the Orange Park Little Theatre, appearing last in The Sunshine Boys. Patrons enter the building through the Tom Nehl lobby, and he and his wife Jean had special seats in the audience.
“Tom would memorize the entire play—his lines and everyone else’s,” remembered Wells. “He expected everyone to perform the script as written; he demanded the same kind of discipline that he demanded of himself.”
At the Amelia Island Community Theatre, managing director Linda McClane loved Tom’s philosophy.
“Tom used to say, ‘you may have limits with your venue, or your talent pool, but there’s no reason you can’t have things just as good as a professional company.’”
She cited the ‘flying company’ they hired in 2015 when they put on Mary Poppins, and the puppet/costumes they needed for Avenue Q last year.
“It means we can really ‘wow’ the audience.”
Today, his family reviews the grant proposals that come in each year. His step-daughter, Linda Ewer, remembers him saying in order to have good plays, you have to have money.
“We still do it the way Tom wanted to—we keep the tradition going.”
Even though Tom’s widow, Jean Nehl Salisbury, no longer lives in the area, she continues to be very proud of the Tom Nehl Fund.
“He lived and breathed the theater, and his dream has come true. He loved the theater more than life.”
Perhaps the best summation of the enduring nature of the Tom Nehl Fund comes from fellow actor and local theater reviewer, Dick Kerekes. In an article for EU Magazine, Kerekes wrote, “there will never be a final curtain for the Tom Nehl Fund, only repeat performances of good theater.”