BRATTLEBORO -- Gary Blomgren had artistic talents from an early age, but his father, who was a college professor, made sure that his son would graduate from college with a way to make a living.
He graduated from college and decided to go into teaching, and he spent his life supporting, teaching and mentoring his students
Blomgren, 60, who worked 29 years at Brattleboro Union High School, died Wednesday, and his widow, Patti, said he was an art teacher first, artist second.
Blomgren had taken a medical leave earlier this year.
He died of liver cancer.
"He always said he was forced into teaching, but he found out that he loved teaching," she said. "He loved to work with his students and show them how to see. He wanted to teach them how to see nature and life with an artist's eye."
Blomgren was born in Normal, Ill., where he grew up and eventually attended Illinois State University.
He began teaching at the elementary level in 1975 and moved to Vermont in 1984 to teach at Brattleboro Union High School.
Patti Blomgren said her husband always loved printmaking, and he worked on the 700-pound printing press that the family set up in the family home in Dummerston right up until his death
As committed as he was to his teaching, she said Gary worked on his art but rarely showed it in public.
Toward the end of his life he was working on a series of paintings using the early morning light, and as he got sicker Patti said she suggested she help him set up the equipment to complete the study.
"He said he achieved what he wanted, because he saw the light the way he wanted to see it," she said. "He wanted to help his students see beyond what their minds think they see."
Steve Rice, who heads the music department at BUHS, said he worked closely with Blomgren over the years as the two helped build a strong and supportive art and music community within the school.
Rice said Blomgren had an understanding and compassion for his students which extended from those who might never take another art class to those who Blomgren thought might spend a lifetime producing art.
"He was interested in who his students were and who they were becoming. He understood that the bulk of the students he was teaching was probably not going to make their life's work doing art, but he still built a great art department for a school our size," Rice said. "He was very intelligent and enormously creative."
Rice has been at BUHS since 1987 and Blomgren has been a presence there for as long as Rice has been in Brattleboro.
Rice said it is going to be hard to walk through the halls knowing Blomgren is no longer around.
"We knew Gary was sick, but there was a lot of shock at how quickly it happened," said Rice. "Teachers spend a lot of time at school. It becomes our home away from home, and when this happens it is like losing a sibling."
While his colleagues say he was a leader in advocating for students and helping everyone of them navigate the sometimes frustrating and challenging teenage years, Blomgren was also remembered for the work he did outside the classroom.
He helped create and strengthen the district Asian Studies program, and was one of the first to expand the school's online presence and college level courses
When the newly renovated high school found itself with a television studio and no one to run it Blomgren became the director of the high school TV station.
He convinced the administration to start an annual student art purchase and was a champion of the yearly student art month displays downtown.
"He had an incredible impact not just on BUHS, but on the whole community," said Windham Southeast Superintendent Ron Stahley. "He was really concerned that students have a broad experience. He was sincere and had strong leadership abilities. He was a great individual. He will be missed."
Kate Anderson, a member of the Brattleboro Arts Committee, said Blomgren helped build a strong connection over the years between the town and the students at the high school.
It was not always easy to juggle the busy schedules of students and community members, but Anderson said Blomgren always made it work for everyone involved.
"He was such a person of generosity and willingness and vision. He had a real appreciation for the arts," Anderson said. "He gave his students an idea of how they could interact with the community through the arts. I know many students who benefited from that in a deep way."
For BUHS Principal Steve Perrin, Blomgren was a veteran teacher to whom Perrin says he would often go for advice that ranged far beyond the art department.
Perrin said Blomgren's sense of humor, calm manner and experience helped him through his sometimes challenging first few years of leading the school.
"I didn't always like what he said, but I always listened to what he said," Perrin said. "
The past few days have been hard on the staff and students, with counselors spending time with students and some teachers needing to take off a day or two.
He is sure the school will find a way to remember Blomgren, but Perrin said for now everybody is dealing with the immediate loss.
"There has been talk of starting a scholarship or finding some way to honor him in a lasting way," Perrin said. "But right now we are focusing on getting through this week. We all need to heal first."
Students, teachers, friends and neighbors are invited to the BUHS auditorium on Saturday, Dec. 8, at 9 a.m., to celebrate Gary's life and honor the gifts he gave us all. An informal reception will follow. In lieu of flowers the family asks for contributions to be made toward a scholarship created in Gary's name.
Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at 802-254-2311, ext. 279, or firstname.lastname@example.org.