“To Know You” play brings to life figure from MC’s past

“To Know You” play brings to life figure from MC’s past

 Sept. 12, 2019


The day was Jan. 25, 2018.

Nashville playwright Mary Donnet Johnson remembers it well, as this day and its events led her on a journey of discovery that culminates in her play, “To Know You,” one of the signature events of Maryville College in celebration of its Bicentennial.

Johnson’s original spark of inspiration came during this January visit to RT Lodge, a hotel and restaurant in the Maryville College Woods. “Something called to me in the woods,” she recalled. “I looked around and I went, ‘Man, these are beautiful woods. Why are they so well cared for, with all these paths? I felt that they were so loved.”

Back at RT Lodge, Johnson started noticing a number of black and white photographs of the same older lady. “I asked the innkeeper, ‘Who is that?’” she said. “And he said, ‘She built this place.’ That was the beginning.”

“She” was Susan Wiley Walker, who came to Maryville from Pennsylvania in 1932 to be near her sister, whose husband, Dr. William Patton Stevenson, served as Maryville College chaplain in the 1920s and 1930s. As the widow of a partner of Andrew Carnegie, Walker had great wealth at her disposal and arranged with Maryville College in 1932 to build a home in the College Woods near her sister and brother-in-law, with the understanding that ownership would revert to MC at the time of her death.

Walker designed the 26-room home that she called “Morningside,” oversaw its construction and transformed the surrounding area into a lovely garden that attracted many visitors, especially when the azaleas bloomed in the spring. After her death at age 98 in 1950, Morningside served as the home of Maryville College presidents and is now operated as RT Lodge by Ruby Tuesday, Inc. 

Digging for answers

Johnson felt an immediate kinship with the lady known only as “Mrs. John Walker” in MC histories. Her interest was piqued in finding out as much as she could about Walker, a generous and quiet benefactor to the College and its students, and then bring her to life in the play, “To Know You.”

“I’m a playwright but I’m also a former actress, so I’m always thinking in my wildest dreams that I might go back to the stage,” she said. “I’m mature, so I thought, hmmm, this has the makings of a fantastic one-woman show. So I started digging.”

Johnson discovered that Walker had self-published a book about her life, called “When I Look Back and Think.” She found a copy of the book in the Maryville College Library and spent an afternoon in the library reading and taking notes.

“When I went to turn it back in, the librarian said, ‘What are you doing? That book hasn’t been taken out since 1972,’” Johnson said. “I told her I was thinking about writing a play about Susan Wiley Walker, and she said, ‘That’s a great idea.’”

The librarian suggested that Johnson continue her research in the MC Archives with the aid of Martha Hess ’67, who had served for 35 years as MC registrar and after retirement, began volunteering in the archives.

“Here she was, hidden way down in the bowels of Fayerweather Hall, surrounded by all those files and bookshelves, and she was the brightest little penny you ever saw,” Johnson said of Hess. “I said, ‘Would you mind talking with me about Susan Wiley Walker?’ and she said, ‘I’d love to.’ … Within a day, she had pulled all the items I had asked about.”

The synchronicity surrounding the search for “Mrs. John Walker” became readily apparent to Johnson.

“I realized that there was such a story here,” Johnson said. “I’m a mature woman; Susan Wiley Walker was 80 years old when she came here and 98 when she died. Martha Hess is in her 70s. Right there you’ve got three mature women who are probably doing our best work at this point in our lives. I thought, ‘That’s the story! That’s the story, when (Walker) was finally free to do her best work.’ Boy, did she!”

The more Johnson discovered, the more the idea for a play began to mushroom. She and Hess settled on several stories revolving around Walker, and Johnson said, “I started spinning a fantasy, taking the stories and imagining and fleshing them out. Pretty soon, it started having a life of its own.

“I started writing things that I later found out were true,” Johnson continued. “It’s like the whole project has been so filled with the spirit of somebody who cherished that college and poured so much of her strength and resources and creativity and energy and passion into it. And she did not put her name on one thing. That’s the message. Every day when you wake up, just think about what you can do to make somebody’s life better and don’t worry about the credit.”

‘To Know You’

“To Know You,” described as “a partially imagined play based on the real life of Susan Wiley Walker, Maryville College Benefactor,” will be performed at 7 p.m. Nov. 1 and at 3 p.m. Nov. 2 in the Clayton Center for the Arts’ Harold and Jean Lambert Recital Hall. The performances are free and open to the public, but a printed ticket from the Clayton Center Box Office is required for admission. A reception will follow the Nov. 1 performance, which will allow audience members to meet the cast, crew and playwright. For tickets, visit or call the box office at 865-981-8590. The production is sponsored by RT Lodge

The play is set just few weeks before Maryville College’s Bicentennial, when a young archivist is racing to find more information about an almost forgotten figure in the College’s history: Walker.

“Though Mrs. Walker was a generous benefactor in the 1930s and '40s, clues to her life at the College are surprisingly scarce,” the play’s description reads. “Just as the archivist makes an important discovery, the benevolent ghost of Mrs. Walker appears and conjures a series of entertaining characters from her era who emerge from the dusty files to bring their stories to life. As this mystical journey unfolds, we are taught important lessons about the value of connection and the wisdom of preserving our precious past.”

One of the scenes is inspired by Peggy Cummings Campbell ’50, now in her early 90s, who had known Walker personally. Walker knew of Peggy’s talent for piano playing and also was aware that the family might not be able to afford such an expensive instrument during the Depression, so she had a Steinway upright delivered to their home. That piano is still in the family.

In the course of visiting with Campbell, Johnson made another discovery.

“She said, ‘I have some dolls that Mrs. Walker gave my sister and me,’” Johnson said. Campbell and her sister were about 8 and 10 years old when they received the dolls, named Elizabeth Susan and Susan Elizabeth after Walker and her sister.

“So she pulls these dolls out,” Johnson said, laughing in delight at the recollection of the day. “They had been very well-loved, shall we say, with a few dings but still beautiful. She said, ‘You know what I’d like to do. I’d like to send them to the (doll) hospital, get them fixed up and buy them some outfits.  Then maybe you can put them in the play.’”

The restored dolls are back and ready to make their theatrical debut in the play – which already had a scene written about the life-sized playhouse Walker had had built for the neighborhood children to play in before the author had met Campbell.

Local talent is being cast for the majority of the roles, but the actresses playing the parts of Walker and the young archivist have already been cast in Nashville, where Johnson can work with them intensely. She said all the actors will meld easily for rehearsals in Maryville.

Denice Hicks will portray Walker. Johnson said, “She is a beloved member of the theater community here and has been running the Nashville Shakespeare Festival for almost 30 years. People are crazy about her, and with reason. She's a delight.”

Johnson is now based in Nashville, but has deep roots in Knoxville and Maryville. “We lived there from 2000 to 2014 and our kids went to Webb, Knoxville schools and even Maryville schools,” she said.

She credits her children with being inspirations. Her daughter, pursuing a very successful career in New York, gives her frank, honest, yet kind opinions about her work.

“When I run things by her, I get the benefit of a younger mind looking at something that is told from a mature perspective,” Johnson said. “She helps me keep things universal.”

Her son is 24, has severe autism, and very little language.

“Most of the information he needs to survive comes to him through all of his senses,” Johnson said. “He has taught me to keep my own senses open, observe his behaviors and become a kind of detective to determine just what he needs. That has certainly polished my ability to get inside of people, including the essence of Susan Wiley Walker.”

Collaborative effort

Johnson is quick to give praise to everyone who has collaborated with her on this project, including Hess; MC archivist Amy Lundell ’06; Dr. Carl Gombert, MC professor of art; and Dr. Heather McMahon, MC professor of theatre.

“Heather McMahon brings her considerable power to this enterprise,” Johnson said. “Carl is going to be doing a painting, and it’s going to be projected at the end of the play. I love the fact that he is going to connect with (Walker’s) spirit – and this is another thing: she started painting when she was 70. So what is it about 70? I can’t wait!”

She also credits a group of MC alumni with bringing the play to the stage.

“This is another interesting sidelight – some of the alumni, who want to remain anonymous, decided to put up some money for the production,” Johnson said. “Nobody’s putting their name on anything here! Of course, I am as the playwright and the actors will, but everyone has gotten so enamored with the idea of reviving this life – like so many lives in Maryville – through the history, with somebody who was so incredibly generous and had so much foresight, and just decided to fix things as she saw them.”

Johnson said she learned so much while researching Walker – as the play’s description reads, the importance of connection, of history, of generous giving whenever a need became apparent. “What emerged for me was a person who effortlessly drifted around the campus almost like a ghost when she was alive, saw the things that needed to be done, and did them,” she said. “It’s almost as effortless as a plant growing.

“I feel that we are surrounded all the time by the kind spirits of people who went before us,” she added. “It’s not overt – I don’t hear words, but I feel a definite benevolence, nurturing, guiding … I hope that if Susan Wiley Walker is paying attention, she will be delighted with this celebration of her time at Maryville College! And that everybody else will be, too.”

Story Written by Linda Braden Albert for Maryville College

Maryville College is a nationally-ranked institution of higher learning and one of America’s oldest colleges. For more than 200 years, we’ve educated students to be giving citizens and gifted leaders, to study everything, so that they are prepared for anything — to address any problem, engage with any audience and launch successful careers right away. Located in Maryville, Tennessee, between the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the city of Knoxville, Maryville College offers nearly 1,200  students from around the world both the beauty of a rural setting and the advantages of an urban center, as well as more than 60 majors, seven pre-professional programs and career preparation from their first day on campus to their last. Today, our 10,000 alumni are living life strong of mind and brave of heart and are prepared, in the words of our Presbyterian founder, to “do good on the largest possible scale.”