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Art was a weapon in Don Musselman's battle for his beliefs

ST. PETERSBURG — When Columbia County's school district deemed Lysistrata too vulgar for contemporary high school students, Don Musselman fired back.

Comstock Rassles Lysistrata, a parody written by Mr. Musselman, was performed at the State Theater in 1991. He added a character to the Ancient Greek play — famous censor Anthony Comstock — using the play to celebrate the bicentennial of the Bill of Rights.

A humanities and theater professor at St. Petersburg Junior College (now St. Petersburg College) and a former president of the Pinellas chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, Mr. Musselman wrote dozens of plays, including at least two about the Panama Canal.

The Waiting Room, about the execution of Czar Nicholas and his family, marked the 1995 opening of the Florida International Museum's first exhibit, "Treasures of the Czars." The rest fill file cabinets in a downtown St. Petersburg apartment bulging with travel artifacts, masks, sculptures and books.

Mr. Musselman, whose scholarship spanned disciplines from history to the arts, died on Saturday at home. He was 86.

"Don had this kind of deep intellectual sensibility," said University of South Florida historian Ray Arsenault. "He was just so well read and so philosophical, but he was primarily a playwright.

"He had this dramatic side, and the most wonderful deep voice. One of those voices that just seems to come out of the clouds, like James Earl Jones."

He grew up in a Chicago suburb. His mother, acting on religious beliefs, forbade him from listening to classical music or reading literature.

"She believed there was evil in them," said Dorles Musselman, 79, Mr. Musselman's wife.

As his father turned a blind eye, he bought records with money from cutting grass and played them when his mother was at work. He read books high in the safety of his family's apple trees.

Dorles Musselman was a student in the theater department when she heard Mr. Musselman's speaking voice and stopped. "I thought, 'This voice is not like any voice I have heard,' " she said. "I saw this gorgeous man."

They married and spent 10 years in Panama, where he taught at Panama Canal College.

The Musselmans returned to the United States in the late 1960s, in stride with a growing antiwar movement. He brought his son, Sean, to a shopping center parking lot in 1968 to help hand out bumper stickers for presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy.

He and Dorles marched for civil rights years before white, middle-class contemporaries joined them. He arrived at an academic discipline of humanities almost by default.

"I found it difficult to specialize," Mr. Musselman told the Wooden Horse in 1985, "and because I was interested in Greek philosophy, French poetry, Spanish and Russian literature, Italian opera, Gothic architecture and the classical music of Brahms, Beethoven and Debussy to name but a few, teaching humanities seemed the way to go."

"Through my father I began a love for ballet," said Sean Musselman, 47, who teaches at Gibbs High School and owns a ballet studio. "One summer in 1974, I went to the beach with him every day, and he would tell me about Nijinsky, Pavlova and Diaghilev. He taught me to appreciate the arts, opera and ballet and theater and painting."

Mr. Musselman remained a teacher in retirement, serving as a docent at the Dali Museum for eight years and lecturing on a wide variety of topics. A play he wrote about Spanish poet Frederico Garcia Lorca won a local contest in 1991.

A scavenger of library sales, Mr. Musselman collected so many books he had to rent a storage unit. He gave some to Arsenault.

Others flank the walls in his downtown St. Petersburg apartment, many with places marked with scraps of lined yellow paper or clippings. Mr. Musselman returned home in recent weeks under hospice care, when a stroke left him unable to speak. His wife played Mozart CDs.

His fingers kept time to the music.

Andrew Meacham can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2431.


Donald Earl Musselman

Born: Sept. 12, 1922.

Died: Sept. 20, 2008.

Survivors: wife, Dorles; sons Gregory, Roderick and Sean.

Celebration of life: 2 p.m. Oct. 4, Unitarian Universalist Church of St. Petersburg, 719 Arlington Ave. N (on Mirror Lake Drive).

Art was a weapon in Don Musselman's battle for his beliefs 09/22/08 [Last modified: Friday, September 26, 2008 12:31pm]
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