Sunday, March 3, 2013

The M Among Us

I watched the movie “Skyfall” a few days ago and realized that one of my good friends is a dead-ringer, in character, for M. Here’s the plot of the real-life terrorist attack my friend thwarted:

Suzie Stewart, in front (as always)
Setting: late afternoon in Palo Alto, California, outside a children’s theatre that has been a community treasure since 1932. Children who have come for rehearsal watch with shock and confusion as police escort the director, assistant director and two other staff members out of the building. Travelers’ checks are missing. Or maybe found. No one is quite certain. The staff members are suspended by the city. No formal charges are brought, but the police chief gives interviews in which she says they have proof of "serious financial misconduct and other possible criminal activity."

It’s not just the kids who are shocked. The four staff members have been at the theatre for most of their lives. They put on plays with homemade costumes. The kids are the stars. No adults permitted onstage. No one knows just what is going on. The police are secretive, using innuendo rather than particulars. The city manager says that his hands are tied, that he can’t interfere with a police investigation. Ditto the city council. It listens mutely as community members fill the council chamber to beg for fair treatment for the theatre staff. The mayor (whose grandson is a child actor at the theatre) says privately that if he tries to interfere he could lose his council seat.

Two weeks after being shut out of his theatre, the assistant director dies. At his funeral, a state senator, who has said many times that the theatre saved his life when he was a lost teen, gives a eulogy in which he says sometimes good people make mistakes. The feeling the experience gave me at the time was that the Gestapo had come to town and rounded up a few citizens to make examples of them while the local officials looked the other way.

But my friend, the one like Judi Dench’s M, didn’t look the other way. She had spearheaded a major addition to the theater a decade before. Her daughter had been an actor in the theatre. She knew the theatre staff. She knew their foibles, their eccentricities, but she also knew they were not capable of stealing from the institution to which they had given their lives. While the city government played Pilate, she waded into the fight.

She spoke at city council meetings. She visited council members privately. She led marches. She raised money for a legal defense fund for the suspended staff. She rallied crowds at fundraisers and protests. She wrote op-ed pieces for the local newspaper. She pushed the city to appoint a police auditor to look into the investigation. Miraculously, it did.

And when the city council got the police auditor's report, they wrote a letter of apology for “the errors and injustices committed during the Palo Alto Police Department's investigation.” “The Auditor concluded that the investigation seriously violated proper police protocols and ignored extensive exonerating evidence,” they said. They repudiated the police report and ordered that the public record be set straight.

Lives had been ruined by then. The director, who had been in that post for fifty years, did not return. The assistant director, who wrote or co-wrote twenty five plays and musicals during his thirty years at the theatre, died under suspicion of being a crook.

My friend who stood up to what can be not unfairly called a terrorist attack is Suzie Stewart. Like M, she fights for what she knows is right even when others doubt, even when others shirk. And in the end she gets it right.

Suzie is dying now. She is gravely ill. She will not recover. But her face and life shine before all who know her even as her body weakens. I’ve never known anyone who better embodies the lines from Tennyson that M quoted in “Skyfall.”

Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.


  1. What a lovely tribute to your friend, Suzie Stewart, and the directors of the Theatre.


  2. Thank you for this beautiful and stirring piece, Mac. I am still baffled as to what the heck the police thought they were doing. Suzie Stewart sounds absolutely wonderful -- and I'm heartened to think of all the children and grown-ups whose lives she has changed for the better, both through her support for the Children's Theater, and through her example of bravery and standing up for what she knows is right. Bravo!!