In Memoriam: Tomie dePaola

Colby-Sawyer was a special place to Tomie dePaola, and likewise, he was special to the college. dePaola taught here. He exhibited his art here. He even stumbled upon the creation of his most iconic children's book character here.

On Monday, March 30, nearly two months before the award-winning author and illustrator was set to open yet another exhibition at the college, a display of "Big Paintings" at the Davidow Center for Art + Design, dePaola died following complications from surgery. He was 85.

"Tomie was a gift, a beloved treasure who was an inspiration to audiences of all ages," said School of Arts & Sciences Professor Jon Keenan, who met dePaola in the early 90s soon after accepting a position at the college. "His pure joy, warmth and love of life was contagious and boundless. He was a loving human being who will be dearly missed."

dePaola's ties to Colby-Sawyer began back in 1959 when he was hired to create sets - and even participate in - the first-ever production held in the new Sawyer Fine and Performing Arts Center, Thornton Wilder's "The Matchmaker." He returned to New London, N.H., in 1972 to accept a position teaching in the college's art department, and remained as a full-time faculty member through 1975.

It was during this period, as it turns out, that Colby-Sawyer played a pivotal - albeit limited - role in dePaola's creation of the character Strega Nona, a beloved Italian grandma witch who produces magical potions in her pasta pot.

“I was sitting in the back at a faculty meeting, doodling on a notepad instead of taking notes, and I happened to draw Pulcinella, the commedia dell'arte character with the big nose and big chin,” dePaola told the college's marketing & communications department in 2013. “All of a sudden a little kerchief appeared on him, and this fat little old Italian lady showed up.”

dePaola took the idea and ran with it.

Strega Nona: An original Tale was published in 1975 and was quickly recognized as a Caldecott finalist for "best illustrated work." The character went on to inspire nearly a dozen additional books, including Strega Nona's Magic Lessons and Strega Nona Meets Her Match, which have sold millions of copies around the globe. Over the course of his decades-long career, dePaola published nearly 270 books and won a variety of notable awards, including the 2000 Newbery Honor Award, the 2011 Children's Literature Legacy Award and that same year, a lifetime achievement award from the American Library Association.

While his career as an author and illustrator took off, dePaola continued teaching courses at Colby-Sawyer off-and-on as an adjunct professor, most recently in the spring of 2016. Keenan said dePaola was deeply committed to the college's fine and performing arts, and would often donate special high-quality art paper, art materials and other equipment and supplies to the department.

"Tomie was a dear friend and a generous, fun, kind, and supportive person," Keenan said. "He loved attending art openings, supporting our students and interns and bringing the faculty together for special celebrations at his home."

In coordination with dePaola's 80th birthday, Colby-Sawyer hosted a pair of exhibitions - 2013's "Then," and 2014's "Now" - in which the artist’s early and later works were displayed. dePaola told the college at the time that he was particularly pleased to be able to show the community, and particularly students, how his art had evolved over the span of five decades. "Big Paintings," which was scheduled to open at the college on May 27 but has since been postponed, was set to feature recently painted large works.

"I had the pleasure of meeting Tomie early in my presidency when he hosted a group of Japanese university artists at his home and workshop in New London," Colby-Sawyer President Susan D. Stuebner said. "He shared his wonderful stories well into the night and took great interest in the young artists. Tomie was a tremendous talent who will be deeply missed by those who knew him personally or through his works."

dePaola was born in Meriden, Conn., in 1934, to Joseph and Florence dePaola, and told the college back in 2013 that even at 4 years old, he knew wanted to be an artist. dePaola earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1956, and a Master of Fine Arts from the California College of Arts in Oakland, Calif., in 1969. He also studied at Lone Mountain College in San Francisco, and was awarded an honorary degree from Colby-Sawyer in 1985.

New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu issued a statement following the announcement of dePaola's death, calling him “a man who brought a smile to thousands of Granite State children who read his books, cherishing them for their brilliant illustrations.”

And while the man behind the smiles may be gone, dePaola's legacy - both through those he touched at Colby-Sawyer and the millions he inspired with his best-selling books - will continue to be felt.

“He was a treasure to both the Colby-Sawyer and New London communities,” Stuebner added. “Tomie was a great example to our students in terms of pursuing one’s passion and talent. He will be missed dearly.”