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In My Opinion

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He was center stage, but truly out of sight

By Taylor Batten
Editorial Page Editor
Taylor Batten
Taylor Batten is The Observer's editorial page editor.

Search the Charlotte Observer’s photo archives for “ImaginOn,” and you’ll find 275 pictures. Most of them show children at the uptown building laughing and learning, enraptured in a librarian’s storytelling or mesmerized by live professional theater.

A generation of Charlotte children – hundreds of thousands of them – is growing up experiencing the power of exceptional theater and stories, exploring their world, learning lessons for life.

For this, we can thank a man most people have never heard of. That’s because while Bruce LaRowe has been all about putting fantastic works on stage, he has always preferred to stay behind the scenes.

LaRowe ended an incredible 20-year run as executive director of the Children’s Theatre of Charlotte on Dec. 31. As a board member for about half of those years and as a past board chairman, I’ve had a front-row seat to watch LaRowe’s vision, leadership and humility – and how his commitment not only changed Charlotte’s arts scene but also changed lives.

LaRowe conceived the nationally unique collaboration between the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Library and the Children’s Theatre of Charlotte in 1997. He was reading a newspaper article about then-library director Bob Cannon’s wish to build a children’s library uptown.

Cramped in his theater in a former VFW building on Morehead Street, LaRowe’s light bulb went on. He called Cannon and the two hatched a plan for what would become ImaginOn, the 102,000-square-foot building on Seventh Street. An Observer article from 1998 asks: “What are the chances it will happen?” “Oh it will happen,” LaRowe responded at the time. “It’s just a matter of where and how.” Not arrogant, just dedicated.

After seven years of LaRowe helping direct an army of supporters, the doors to ImaginOn opened in October 2005. Today, the Children’s Theatre is widely regarded as one of the best in the country, and ImaginOn has served as a national model.

Tom Eiselt, who chaired the Children’s Theatre board from 2006 to 2008, remembers thinking that LaRowe would surely want to exhale after such a massive leap (the theater’s space tripled and its budget doubled with the move).

“This would have been a time to relax a little, rest on one’s laurels, bask in the glow,” Eiselt told a crowd of supporters at a going-away party for LaRowe last week. “Did Bruce do that? Absolutely not. He realized that we had successfully fulfilled the 5-year plan of getting into ImaginOn and immediately launched a process to create the next 5-year plan. ‘Where do we go next?’”

In an age when recognition is frequently bestowed more on those with celebrity than those with competency, LaRowe stands out for his servant leadership. His focus these past 20 years was on his co-workers and the families they serve through productions, camps, education programs and community involvement.

When others on the executive committee and I tried to give LaRowe a bonus for an especially strong year, he turned it down. He didn’t feel comfortable taking it because he wanted to make sure the theater was on the strongest possible financial footing. Eiselt says LaRowe turned down a bonus from him, too, in the heyday before the recession. Eiselt insisted. LaRowe took it, Eiselt said, then donated it back to the theater.

LaRowe’s attention to the bottom line, and his team’s, is a major reason the Children’s Theatre has enjoyed balanced budgets for 33 straight years – including through the worst economy of our lifetimes. That’s something few if any Charlotte nonprofits can claim. Yet he amassed this record while investing in the theater’s product and more than quadrupling its budget.

LaRowe is an administrator, not an actor. Still, he had endless appreciation for actors and the difficulty of producing such magic on stage. For this he won their respect, and was able to lead them without being one of them.

LaRowe’s favorite pastime, if not watching his Green Bay Packers, is biking. Some years ago, he biked across the country, from Washington State to the East Coast. This month, he will bike through much of Florida to Key West.

He will need to be indefatigable. He will need unbending focus. He will have to stay committed when the going gets tough.

I think it’s a safe bet he makes it.

Reach me at tbatten@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @tbatten1.

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