Those who drive west along Interstate 70 near Monessen will find an interesting billboard at the top of a hill near Exit 42-A. In black-and-white letters it reads “One Billboard, One Alumna, One Frances McDormand. Congratulations!”
Meant to honor the actress who’s currently in the running for an Oscar for Best Actress for her work in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” the sign was the idea of retired teacher Virginia Sala Monaghan, who taught English at Monessen High School for 36 years. In the movie, McDormand’s character rents three billboards critical of the local police chief for failing to find the person who raped and killed her daughter.
“We put up the billboard on Feb. 14 in the school’s black-and-white colors because we wanted to keep it simple and because Frances is genuine and down-to-earth,” said Monaghan, who taught McDormand English in the actress’ junior year.
Monaghan also got to witness McDormand’s debut acting performance at school in the role of Lady Macbeth while just a ninth-grader under the direction of English teachers Joyce Zeli and the late Jean Davies.
“Frances is a wonderful, talented, intelligent and creative person, and people could tell even back then she was destined to do great things in theater,” Monaghan said.
According to school superintendent Dr. Leanne Spazak, McDormand also sang in the school chorus, and was a majorette, yearbook editor, assistant class secretary, a member of the Glee Club and a guitarist and singer with the music group The Blue Denims.
While the billboard idea was Monaghan’s, she said she had help from eight Monessen residents and fellow McDormand fans – Melanie Monaghan Bradburn, T. Dean Wilkins, Roberta Caruso Bergstedt, Michelle Gnora Roesch, Mark Shire, Rich Goimarac and Monessen’s 26-year old mayor, Matt Shorraw.
“Matt did most of his campaign ads through Lamar Advertising and gave me a contact there,” Monaghan said. “When I called and told them of our project, they donated the space.”
Born in Gibson City, Ill., McDormand was adopted by Vernon W. McDormand, a Disciple of Christ minister, and his wife, Noreen. As a minister, McDormand’s father moved the family quite often until they settled in Monessen, where he ministered at First Christian Church.
After graduating from Monessen High School in 1975, McDormand earned a bachelor of arts degree in theater at Bethany College in West Virginia, then entered Yale Drama School, where she roomed with actress Holly Hunter and earned a master of fine arts degree.
Married to Joel Coen of Coen brothers fame, McDormand is one of the few performers to win the triple crown of acting – an Academy Award, an Emmy and a Tony. For her work in the film “Fargo,” she took home the Academy Award for Best Actress in 1997.
“After she won the Oscar, we placed two plaques in the school auditorium in her honor,” Monaghan said. “Since she’s become successful, she returned to the school a couple of times to speak to the students, talk about her career, answer questions and give good advice to those thinking of trying their hand in theater. I remember her saying to them to always have a marketable skill as a backup to a theater career, but she also told them they could make a wonderful living in supporting roles.”
For her role as Mildred Hayes in “Three Billboards,” she has already won a Golden Globe, a Critics Choice Award, a Screen Actors Guild Award and a British Academy Film Award, as well as receiving the Oscar nomination.
“After she won an Academy Award for “Fargo,” Monessen was full of excitement as it is now,” Monaghan said. “The media interviewed the students, who also made a congratulatory video in her honor. I feel that her roles as Mildred Hayes and Marge Gunderson in Fargo will go down in cinematic history. I’m honored to have known and taught her because she’s a terrific talent and a wonderful person. I’m so proud of her and happy for her success.”
Before the Oscars are presented on Sunday, those who planned the billboard project will inform McDormand of its place of prominence just outside the town where she spent her high school years.