After nearly 20 years, Emmy-nominated actress Jenna Fischer returned to her alma mater to speak in this year’s Holman Family Distinguished Speaker Series.
Fischer graduated from Northeast Missouri State University in 1995, the year before it was renamed Truman State University. Originally enrolling as a pre-law history major, Fischer changed directions her junior year and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in theater and a minor in journalism.
As part of her return, Fischer created a scholarship in the name of theater professor Ron Rybkowski, who is retiring after 31 years. Rybkowski was one of Fischer’s professors, but he ultimately served more as a mentor. He even paid $100 to get Fischer out of jail when she was arrested for not paying a traffic ticket.
“Ron was that teacher who teaches the whole student,” Fischer said. “So he doesn’t just teach you the class and information — he teaches you what you specifically need. So if you need to be challenged, he challenged you. If you need a break, he gives a break. He knows how to keep you interested and engaged as a student and helps you grow and mature as a person. So he was really special to me.”
She said when she heard he was retiring, she wanted to help set up a scholarship in his name to give more students the opportunity to study theater at Truman.
“Hopefully with that, they’ll be blessed with the same bit of magic that I was able to be blessed with having him as my actual teacher,” Fischer said.
Rybkowski started working at Truman as the Theatre Department was first being developed. Since then, he said he has seen a lot of changes in his department and the school in general.
Rybkowski said he was absolutely floored and honored to have the scholarship dedicated in his name. The scholarship is the first one to be geared toward students looking to go into the technician side of the theater department, which Rybkowski focuses on at Truman.
“We have plenty of scholarships for acting and for academic purposes, so this will be the first one dedicated just to technicians, which I think is huge,” Rybkowski said. “I think that’s saying to all of our students that we truly are liberal arts and science and we truly believe in all aspects of theater and not just the acting part. So having a scholarship in my name dedicated to that, I think that’s huge. The legacy thing is pretty cool also.”
Fischer said the theater program at Truman is special to her because of its liberal arts philosophy, which required her to learn about lighting, stage managing, making props and more, in addition to learning acting techniques.
“I really gained an appreciation for how collaborative the artistic process is,” Fischer said. “And then when I went out into the world, I had all of those skills and I was able — I just had a language for how to put together a production that I feel like some students who only studied acting technique didn’t have that.”
He said there are a number of successful Truman graduates from Truman’s theater department, but he recognized a passion and drive in Fischer that indicated to him she would be a star if given the chance.
The two remained somewhat in contact through email over the course of her rise to stardom.
“I remember when she was first on ‘The Office,’ and I think it was during the second season maybe and she sent out a desperate email saying, ‘Tell everybody to watch the show, because it’s really good, it’s very funny, but we think we might get cut unless the numbers go up’ — and to be honest with you, I wasn’t watching the show at the time — but then … it took off,” Rybkowski said.
As a student, Fischer performed in student-driven lab shows of “School of Rock,” “Cabaret” and “Godspell.” She said she was only in two main stage productions, which included a supporting role in “Noises Off” and a lead role in “Crimes of the Heart.”
Additionally, Fischer said she would work on short films and television shows with classmates on weekends because the University did not have a film and television department on campus. One such show was a satire based on the Kirksville Police Department called “KPD Blues,” which they made two episodes of. She explained how they learned how to film and edit, which she said is exactly what you do when you want to become an actor in Hollywood.
During her time on campus, Fischer spent a lot of time working in the theater department, which included joining a theater fraternity on campus despite staying away from the Greek scene. Fischer said she also did some work within the communication department and avoided sporting events.
Fischer said she never left the theater buildings on campus because they were her home. She actually lived in Centennial Hall her freshman year, but during her sophomore year she said she moved to a small apartment across Normal Street and went to class in Ophelia Parrish, Baldwin and McClain halls. Other parts of campus just weren’t of interest.
“Barnett Hall? Why is it so far away?” Fischer asked. “Can you move that building closer? I got a D in that class because I didn’t want to walk there.”
In her free time, Fischer said she would go to the newly built Walmart to walk around — which is still a popular pastime today — and often ate at places like Diner 54 and Pancake City because she couldn’t afford the Wooden Nickel on a college budget.
Fischer said if she were to do her time at Truman all over again, she would have taken some business classes because having that kind of background is beneficial in the industry.
Fischer said there have been some changes since she last visited Kirksville in 2000 — Pancake City is no longer 24 hours — but the spirit of this small town is still the same.
“Little things have changed about Kirksville, but the general vibe is still the same,” Fischer said. “And it was the vibe that made me want to come here to school anyways, so I was so happy to discover that that was still alive and well.”
She said it was weird and confusing to return to campus and walk into buildings with an expectation of how they will look only to be completely wrong. Other areas, she said, haven’t changed a bit.