Final curtain closes for beloved drama teacher - | Lufkin and Nacogdoches, Texas

Final curtain closes for beloved drama teacher

Eric Cates (Source: Dana Goolsby, Texas Theatre) Eric Cates (Source: Dana Goolsby, Texas Theatre)
PISD Theatre Arts Director Eric Cates and cast take home UIL award in 2015 (Source: Judy Hobbs) PISD Theatre Arts Director Eric Cates and cast take home UIL award in 2015 (Source: Judy Hobbs)

By Dana Goolsby (website)

PALESTINE, TX - An East Texas community is mourning the death of beloved drama teacher, Eric Jay Cates. The local theatre giant passed away suddenly on Tuesday, August 11, 2015, in Tyler,  after complications related to his battle with cancer.

Cates was born February 15, 1966 in Paris, Texas. He graduated from Cooper High School in 1984 and pursued an education in theatre arts from Tarleton University in Stephenville. Cates’ first teaching job after college was at Sam Rayburn High School. He landed at Palestine High School in 1995, where he spent the next 20 years of his life devoting time to his students, and the arts in the community. 

Cates made Palestine his home, and in turn, the community embraced him. 

Since Tuesday, hundreds of people have been expressing ways Cates touched their hearts and impacted their lives on social media and in the community. Former students, current students, parents of students, former classmates, college friends, old roommates, friends, family and co-workers posted their most endearing memories about the man who made them laugh, held their hand when they cried, who was often outspoken, but always available to listen, they said. Cates was a friend, a father figure and a mentor to many. To thousands, he was a spirited and gifted drama teacher who lived to care for his students, even long after they graduated.

2015 PISD graduate Rigo Serralde said Cates was like a parent to him at school, and said he was a person he would always remember no matter where he goes in life. 

“He always laughed and smiled, even when he was angry,” said Serralde.

Many others recalled their special bond with Cates.

“There was no limit or boundary to what we could talk about or how much he loved, not just me, but all of his theatre geeks,” said 2015 PISD graduate, and Cates’ final student to be named Best Actress at UIL, Haley Cook.

Former student Jane Upshaw recalled Cates as a silent confidence builder. 

“You know those people who built your confidence as a child, but you didn’t seem to realize it until you were an adult because they were so sincere and kind it didn’t seem like anything intentional? That was Mr.Cates,” said Upshaw.

Friends, old and new, discussed Cates’ ability to make people laugh and how he entertained the community at large. Other friends recalled the kindness he had shown to them over the years, and how he helped them get through some of the toughest times in their lives. Fellow actors and actresses recalled their time on the boards with Cates, and how much fun it was to be in a show with him. 

Another former student posted about how Cates had taught him valuable life lessons that stuck with him beyond his years in the classroom. 

“Mr. Cates taught me charm doesn’t always get you what you want, and he taught me to venture out and give different things a try at times,” said David Cummings.

The void Cates left behind will forever be felt by those who knew and loved him, but his legacy of being someone who loved others, the arts, and being a high school drama teacher will be continued by those whose lives he touched. Several former students have entered into college with intentions of pursuing a career in theatre, specifically as teachers, because of the impact Cates had on each of them.

A service for Eric Jay Cates will be held Thursday, August 13, at 10 a.m. at the Palestine High School Auditorium. The service will be conducted by Cates’ former pastor, Rev. Wade Hobbs. The public is invited to Cates’ celebration of life. 

Cates is survived by his parents, E.J. and Joyce Cates of Cooper, his long-time companion John Latimer, of Palestine, a sister, Janeen Gibson and her husband Mike Cooper, a niece Jacie Gibson and a nephew, Justin Gibson. Pallbearers will be members of Cates’ beloved “theatre geeks,” and theatre department students. 

A graveside service will follow at Oaklawn Cemetery in Cooper, Texas at 3 p.m. on Thursday. Rev. Craig Harris will officiate, and arrangements are under the direction of Bailey & Foster. 

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