UGA shooting victims shared love of town, theatre troupe

Marie Bruce juggled a family and law career and still found time to act and serve on the board of Athens' Town and Gown Players.

Ben Teague put his carpentry skills to work building great stage sets for more than a decade.

Tom Tanner joined the long-standing troupe later, but added technical skills that made the tiny sets sparkle.

Colleagues and neighbors of the theater gathered in small groups outside crime-scene tape Saturday afternoon, waiting for news and for police to release the guests who had gathered at the Grady Avenue building. By Saturday evening, actors, directors and theater supporters were gathering to comfort each other in the wake of a triple murder outside their longtime performance space.

The theater troupe's annual reunion was just breaking up around noon Saturday when University of Georgia marketing professor George Zinkhan opened fire with two handguns, according to Athens-Clarke police Capt. Clarence Holeman.

He fired several shots, Holeman said, killing his wife, Bruce, and two men, Tanner and Teague. Two others were injured.

"It's a huge loss," said Steve Elliott-Gower, an actor in the troupe. "In their own rights, they were incredibly special people."

Elliott-Gower met with other actors Saturday to continue to notify far-flung friends of the 40-year-old theater.

"Many of (the theater friends who gathered Saturday) had seen something that really was pretty horrific, but there was still a recognition that the organization Town and Gown will go on," Elliott-Gower said. "Ben and Marie and Tom won't be forgotten."

Bruce, a mother of two children ages 8 and 10, was a lawyer in Athens. She was active on the board of Town and Gown Players, currently serving as its president, even if her schedule allowed her to perform only once or twice a year, a friend said.

Teague was a translator who moved to Athens in 1977 and called himself "a confirmed theater bum" who had been involved with the Town and Gown Players for 17 years, according to his Web site. His wife, Fran Teague, is an English professor at UGA.

Tanner, who had worked for the Carl Vinson Institute of Government, was playing the role of Doc Watson in the Town and Gown Players' production of "Sherlock Holmes."

"He was a kind and funny man and a very dedicated father," said Janet Frick, who was Tanner's next-door neighbor in Winterville for five years. "He was a smart person, too."

"He didn't always show his animated side right away, but he was a funny person," she said.

His 8-year-old daughter was good friends with Eric Wagoner's 4-year-old daughter. The Wagoners had planned to attend the picnic, but decided instead to go to the Georgia Aquarium, said Wagoner, who has acted with the troupe since 1997.

"I've been trying to figure out all afternoon how I'm going to tell my daughter what happened," Wagoner said Saturday night.

Teague was the lead carpenter on countless productions, Wagoner said, and though he occasionally would act or direct, he mostly contributed with his building skills.

"He was just a master at building a set ... I always had a paragraph in every program about what a master he is at taking my rough drawing and turning it into something.

"This was his love and he did it better than anyone I have ever met," Wagoner said.

"Ben has probably put more volunteer time into Town and Gown than anyone else," Elliott-Gower said, calling Teague "the life and soul of the theater."

"He was the guy who kept the lights on and the toilets flushing. He was the sweetest guy - a big, sweet guy. Gosh, I'm going to miss him."

Teague and Bruce were well-known and respected in the theater community.

"Ben was loved by everybody ... and Marie, too," Wagoner said.

"I had always wanted to be in a play with her, but it didn't work out," he added. "She was probably the finest female actress we had."

Bruce acted in the theater most of her adult life, Elliott-Gower said.

"She was a striking woman, a real presence on the stage ... and a good director, too," he said.

As news spread of the murders, theater fans and Boulevard neighbors scrounged for news about whether police had identified the victims or caught Zinkhan.

"I went down to the scene today and I think everybody is in shock," said Athens-Clarke Commissioner David Lynn, whose district covers the area. "The professor was highly thought of and from what people say to me, at the top of his game, highly functional. How does someone go from such a highly rational person to something like this?"

The clamor surrounding Athens' Twilight Criterium, one of the largest events of the year, added to neighbors' discomfort.

"When helicopters continue to circle the neighborhood, that's disconcerting," Lynn said. "There are 30,000 people downtown and when you hear a siren, you wonder whether that is related to the event."

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