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Monday, January 21, 2013

Tracy Sugarman, Artist, Writer, Civil Rights Activist, 91 Image
Tracy Sugarman: Martin Luther King “changed my life.” Phyllis Groner for

By James Lomuscio

UPDATE Longtime Westporter Tracy Sugarman, the indefatigable and nationally recognized illustrator, writer and civil rights activist, died Sunday at his Compo Beach home, a family spokesman said. He was 91.

A 62-year town resident, Sugarman was best known for his paintings and illustrations recording American history from D-Day to the Space Shuttle. Five of his works, including one depicting the first rollout of the Space Shuttle Columbia, are in the NASA Smithsonian Collection at the Kennedy Space Center.

“Our town and our nation have lost one of its most distinguished artists who in drawings and words recorded and preserved for history our most turbulent times,” said First Selectman Gordon Joseloff. “Our condolences to Gloria and his family.”

Helen Klisser During, Westport Arts Center’s director of visual arts and a WestportNow contributing photographer, called Sugarman’s passing “most tragic news.”

“Tracy certainly touched my heart as he did with so many,” she said.

Klisser During described him as “a marvelous humanitarian, artist, writer, activist, a great soul that will be sorely missed by so many, certainly the Westport Arts Center where he was revered as an esteemed artist of the highest order.” Image
Tracy Sugarman’s portrait of Martin Luther King. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Contributed photo Image
Tracy Sugarman’s “We Had Sneakers, They Had Guns: The Kids Who Fought for Civil Rights in Mississippi” was published by Syracuse University Press in 2009. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Contributed photo

Among Sugarman’s nonfiction books are “My War: A Love Story in Letters and Drawings,“We Had Sneakers, They Had Guns: The Kids Who Fought for Civil Rights in Mississippi,” “Drawing Conclusions: An Artist Discovers His America,” and “Stranger at the Gate: A Summer in Mississippi,” choreographing what he witnessed as an illustrator journalist in 1966 during the civil rights movement.

“Stranger at the Gate” was the genesis of his first novel published last month, “Nobody Said, ‘Amen,’” choreographing the stories of two families, one black, one white, navigating the turbulent landscape of social change in Mississippi during the 1960s.

Sugarman’s last public appearance was at the Westport Public Library Dec. 15 for a book discussion and signing. (See WestportNow Dec. 15, 2012)

In January 2011, Sugarman told the Westport Y’s Women that Martin Luther King Jr. “changed my life” when he came to Westport in 1964 to speak at Temple Israel. Sugarman said that meeting led him to be among Westporters and other volunteers who later went to the South to support King and help blacks in their nonviolent fight for their rights.

In addition to being an intimate participant in the civil rights movement, Sugarman was a U.S. Navy Reserve ensign who served on an amphibious boat during the D-Day invasion of Normandy June 6, 1944. Image
Tracy Sugarman gives wife Gloria a kiss at the 2011 Westport Memorial Day ceremony at which he was grand marshal. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Helen Klisser During for

“He was on Utah Beach from June 6 until November, bringing in stuff for the troops on the land,” recalled Bill Vornkahl, Memorial Day Parade chairman who picked Sugarman as grand marshal in 2011. Rain forced cancellation of the parade and the ceremony was moved inside to Westport’s Town Hall.

“Each year we try to select somebody who is a resident of Westport, and who has done something outstanding while in the service and has contributed to the town,” Vornkahl said. “Tracy fits that bill.”

At the time, Sugarman said he has gone to many of the parades, even marching with a black armband in one to protest the Vietnam War, though he said he holds nothing but respect for the veterans who served.

“I think there’s nothing that pleases me more,” he said about being selected. “I think this is one of the great moments for me. I look forward to it, and I’m kind of humbled by it. There are a lot of people who paid their dues in this town, and I respect them all.” Image
Tracy Sugarman addresses a Westport Public Library audience last month about his first novel. It was his last public appearance. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Phyllis Groner for

Even though he was not riding in a convertible and waving to the crowds, Sugarman seemed thrilled by the honor. He consoled parade organizer Vornkahl, telling him that even the D-Day invasion, originally planned for June 5, 1944 was postponed a day due to inclement weather.

“I woke up looking forward to the parade,” Sugarman later told the crowd. “I guess man proposes and God disposes.”

In his Memorial Day remarks that year, Sugarman spoke of his love for Westport and the soldiers who fight wars.

“Today our young men and women are serving all over the world, still engaged in tragically long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,” he said. “They loyally do their hazardous tours of duty, sometimes repeatedly, for all of us. Their sacrifices, too, should be honored. Image
Tracy Sugarman addressing the 2011 Memorial Day ceremony: soliders were “kids, like our kids.” (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Helen Klisser During for

“We may quarrel about the necessity for a war, but we should never quarrel about the devotion and dedication of the men and women who we send to fight. There is a mythology about those young people, sparked by our television and films.

“They do not resemble Tom Hanks or John Wayne. The men who hit the invasion beach with me in World War II looked much more like the junior or senior students at Staples High School, or our kids home from college.

“We should realize that the soldiers, sailors or airmen we sent to fight our wars in France, or Vietnam or Korea were kids. Kids, like our kids.”

The son of David and Golda Sugarman, he was born on Nov. 14, 1921 in Syracuse, N.Y. Instead of following in the footsteps of his father, an attorney, Sugarman received a fine arts degree at Syracuse University’s College of Fine Arts before enlisting in the Navy.

Sugarman and his wife June had two children, Richard Sugarman of Niantic and Lori Sugarman Whittier of Framingham, Mass., both of them psychotherapists.

After June’s death in 1998, Sugarman married journalist Gloria Cole in 2000. Image
Gloria and Tracy Sugarman with their close friends Mary Lou and Larry Weisman at the 2011 Westport Memorial Day ceremony.  (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Helen Klisser During for

“He was the most beautiful person I ever knew in my life, in every way,” said Gloria Cole Sugarman. “He was an optimist, absolutely, and he had a masculine grace that was extraordinary. Everything he did, he did with style.”

“Between us we had 10 grandchildren,” she added. “He had three, and I had seven.”

She noted that every other week, Sugarman would have lunch with two longtime friends and artists , Westport illustrator Howard Munce and Redding water colorist Arthur Shilstone—all of them in their 90s, with Munce at 96, the eldest.

“He always came back laughing and said that they had a wonderful time together,” Cole Sugarman said. “They called each other ‘the boys.’”

Sugarman’s works were featured in Fortune, The Saturday Evening Post, The New York Times, Collier’s, and books by major publishers. In addition to this repertoire are his murals found at Norwalk Hospital, as well as New York hospitals, not to mention his “Heroes of Nine Eleven” mural commissioned by the AFL-CIO in Washington, D.C. Image
Tracy Sugarman talks about his illustrations at the Westport Arts Center in 2010 as Helen Klisser During, director of visual arts, holds one of his World War II works. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Phyllis Groner for

He was the recipient of many awards from the Society of Illustrators in New York City and the Art Directors Club in Washington. And in 1998, he received a Lifetime Achievement in Art Award from the Town of Westport.

Like her husband, Cole Sugarman had her own close colleagues and friends. One is Westporter Mary Lou Weisman with whom she has remained close since they worked at the now defunct, weekly newspaper Fairpress in the late 1970s.

When Cole Sugarman married Tracy, the two friends found another common bond. Both of their husbands played key roles in the civil rights movement.

“In 1964, I was in Mississippi with the Lawyers Constitution Defense Committee,” said Lawrence Weisman, a Westport attorney, recalling his work registering black voters in Biloxi.

He noted that it was ironic that Sugarman died on the weekend celebrating Martin Luther King’s birthday, a national holiday celebrating the culmination of the civil rights efforts. Image
Tracy Sugarman with his friend, fellow artist Howard Munce, in this 2009 photo. Gloria Cole Sugarman said her husband lunched with Munce and Redding water colorist Arthur Shilstone—all of them in their 90s—every two weeks. “They called each other ‘the boys,’” she said. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Phyllis Groner for

“Here’s a guy whose life was bracketed by two of the greatest demonstrations of conflict in his lifetime, the Second World War and the civil rights movement, and still he maintained his faith in the goodness of people and humanity, and he lived his life that way,” Lawrence Weisman said. “He was an optimist.”

Mary Lou Weisman agreed.

“He was very optimistic and saw the good in everybody no matter how bad things were,” she said. “Up until he died, he was the luckiest man alive.”

Cole Sugarman agreed, saying that her husband lived his life to the fullest, defying his age and looking decades younger.

“He would say it’s good genes and because he always did what he loved to do,” his widow said. “He was lucky. Lights would turn green in front of him, and I would say, ‘That’s a Tracy Sugarman light.’ He was just lucky, and he was the first to acknowledge it.”

A memorial service will be held Sunday, May 26, at 2 p.m. at Westport’s Unitarian Church, 10 Lyons Plains Road.


Posted 01/21/13 at 05:27 PM


Comment Policy

I was saddened today to learn of Tracy’s death.  Westport has lost someone who has offered so much to society, the arts, and the quality of life. I met Tracey shortly after I moved to Westport in 1953.  Over the years I have enjoyed his friendship, appreciated his efforts to improve the quality of life for all in our societies, enjoyed his art and learned from is writings. I shall always be grateful for he has offered.

My wife Janet and I extend our sympathies to his wife Gloria and his children.  He shall always be remembered.

Al Beasley

Posted by Albert S. Beasley, M.D. on January 21, 2013 at 10:40 PM | #

A gentleman, a gentle man - we were the lucky ones to know him, luckier still to call him a friend. His life work, his love of dear Gloria, of the world - an inspiration.
Oh Tracy, you will be missed!

Posted by Tricia Tierney on January 22, 2013 at 02:34 AM | #

As an employee for 26 years at Max’s Art Supplies and the professional picture framer for 18 of those years, I have had the honor to know Tracy all of that time. I knew him not only as an artist and framing customer, but I considered him a friend as well, as we all did at Max’s. He always had that unique smile even recently when he brought in some of his artwork for me to inspect and repair after much of it was damaged from hurricane Sandy, he just took it all in stride. Knowing I live in Milford, he wanted me to work with him to see if the city of Milford would be interested in a series of sketches he had done for Milford for a television program about Milford’s EMT and fire department joining forces.
I will greatly miss him coming in the framing department ordering matboard, framing, and chatting with me about how my children are doing. I will always remember what he said just a few days ago regarding the importance of always doing the best when it came to creating artwork…“My artwork is like my children. When they leave the house I don’t want them to embarrass me”. He was such a great guy and I will always remember him.
Tracy, you will be greatly missed!

Posted by Jerome Cimbak on January 23, 2013 at 07:20 PM | #

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