Performances by the all-volunteer company, which was founded by two moms who wanted to a summer acting outlet for their college-age kids, were poorly attended. Don McBee, who had followed in local directing legend Mo Dutterer's footsteps, had died after the 1983 production and the group was floundering.
But shutting down was not in board members' hearts, so in 1984 they asked Sankey, who had been playing piano for HCST for a year, if he'd take the helm. He agreed, on one condition: He wanted to direct "The Sound of Music," his all-time favorite show.
The board balked. They weren't keen on using child actors, which casting for the show's von Trapp family would require, and negotiations seemed to be at an impasse.
But the board eventually agreed to Sankey's request. They told him they would "see how it goes."
"Well, the production was very, very successful," Sankey said. Howard County Summer Theatre had found its niche, and Sankey had found a decades-long summer job he still adores.
As the group marks its 40th season this summer, that focus on family-friendly, quality productions at a reasonable price is still in force.
"Even if [the play we're doing] has an edgier theme, we stay true to the story but don't emphasize the raunchy parts," Sankey said.
Barbara Bogart, who began attending HCST productions in the early 1980s when her college-age daughter was acting in plays, made the 4-foot-by-7-foot rustic flag for "Les Miserables" and remains a steadfast patron because "it's such a family-oriented experience," she said.
"Tom had so many people try out this year, and he wants everyone to be involved, but the stage can only hold so many. The choreographer and the costume designer were saying, 'Hold it, hold it,' " she said with a laugh.
Despite the cost of putting on a play every summer — most of the expense lies in renting the Mount Hebron auditorium and paying for air conditioning, which they turn off for rehearsals — Howard County Summer Theatre has been able to donate more than $100,000 over the years to various nonprofit organizations.
This year half of the play's net proceeds will benefit the American Heart Association in memory of Stephen Namie, "a dear friend of HCST" who died suddenly of a heart attack last fall at age 43, Sankey said. The other half will go, as it does every year, to Prepare for Success, which collects backpacks and school supplies for needy county students.
Sankey, 61, says he has no plans to retire — from teaching or directing.
"I can't imagine not teaching math to kids," he said of his 39 years in the field. And he has no thought of leaving Howard County Summer Theatre. He credits his lengthy run to his wife, Mary Ann, a chemistry teacher at Mount Hebron, and her wholehearted support of his directing efforts.
"Everybody takes the work very seriously," he said. "But we're not really a theater group — we're a summer family."
If you go
Performances of "Les Miserables" are scheduled for 7 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday and July 9-12, and at 2 p.m. July 6 at Mount Hebron High School, 9440 Old Frederick Road. Tickets are $17 for adults and $13 for seniors and kids under 12. They can be purchased at ticketleap.com or at Music and Arts in Chatham Station shopping center. Tickets will also be sold at the door as long as seats are available.