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Mila Koumpilova, Published July 15 2009

Trollwood scholarship pays homage to spirit of former student

Matt Thibedeau reinvented himself at Trollwood twice: at the start and near the end of his short but eventful adult life.

He joined the performing arts school as a shy, geeky teen. After turns as a swaggering Captain Hook and a free-spirited Curly, he gained the confidence that would propel him to Broadway stages and a Calvin Klein modeling gig.

More recently, he discovered a love for teaching at Trollwood after his battle with cystic fibrosis brought him back home.

So when Thibedeau died this spring at 35, his family and friends knew exactly what he would have wanted. Within weeks of the funeral, they had raised almost $10,000 for a Trollwood scholarship in Thibedeau’s name. They hope starting next year, the fund will let fledgling performers with Thibedeau’s passion and intensity attend Trollwood for free.

Thibedeau kicked off his Trollwood tenure at age 13 as a timid but energetic lighting technician. The following year, he was cast as a butler in “The Sound of Music,” after some wondered whether he might be too retiring for even that tiny stage part.

“We almost didn’t cast him because we weren’t sure he could project the one line he had,” recalls Lisa Farnham, Trollwood’s marketing coordinator.

Thibedeau went on to land lead musical roles and a part in “Imagine,” Trollwood’s award-winning show featuring Chinese, Russian and US teens. Before long, he was signing autographs for young fans in Beijing and singing in Moscow’s Red Square.

Then, Thibedeau was off to the Boston Conservatory of Music and later to New York City, where he landed roles in more than 30 musicals. He played the lead part in Disney’s “Hercules” on Broadway and toured South America as Danny in “Grease.”

Thibedeau returned to Fargo-Moorhead in 2006 after he found out he had cystic fibrosis, an incurable lung disease, and likely only a few years to live. He enrolled in Minnesota State University Moorhead’s art history program – and sought out opportunities to stay involved in musical theater.

He starred in a North Dakota State University production of “A Chorus Line” and directed “Godspell” at Shanley High School. Then, Trollwood summoned him back.

Co-founder Vicki Chepulis was looking for someone to teach a new audition techniques class. She thought: “Wow, we have Matt right here. He’s been doing this for years.”

For three summers, he taught at Trollwood, riveting students with stories from his life as a performer.

“He found new joy and a new passion in connecting with young people and teaching,” says Thibedeau’s friend Adam Pankow.

Last summer, as his health started declining faster, Thibedeau signed on to teach at Trollwood again. He walked there from his north Fargo home with his oxygen tank. He walked slowly to save up his breath and energy.

He hid the oxygen tank behind a desk and met his students. After the class, he walked home, sleeping the rest of the afternoon. The exertion of those weeks sent him to the hospital when the class was over.

“He knew it would wear him out,” says his mom, Mary Schroeder. “But he believed it was worth the price. He continued to live life to the fullest.”

But in the meantime, Thibedeau’s disease unrelentingly robbed him of lung function and eventually exiled him to home. On May 20, he died at MeritCare Hospital.

The Trollwood scholarship idea came to his family within days, and Thibedeau’s funeral program featured a call for donations. Soon, contributions streamed in from the area and both coasts. Schroeder was overwhelmed by the outpouring of support.

Chepulis is thrilled Thibedeau’s spirit will linger at Trollwood through the fund. As the stresses of opening the school’s new Moorhead campus got to her this winter, she thought of him: “How could I complain for a minute when Matt would give anything for another breath? He taught me a huge lesson about not taking life for granted.”

If you go

How to help

Send a check payable to Matthew Thibedeau Scholarship Fund to Trollwood Performing Arts School, 801 50th Ave. S.W., Moorhead, MN 56560.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mila Koumpilova at (701) 241-5529