Friday November 30, 2012

Gary Blomgren, my high school art teacher, died today (Wednesday, Nov. 28). I had heard a few weeks ago that he had been given only six months to live, due to an illness. But today’s news comes as an unexpected, ungrateful and unpleasant shock.

I guess you never really know how much time you have left, even if the medical experts assure you it will be more than a few weeks.

I think Mr. Blomgren -- we affectionately called him ‘Mr. B’, even years after graduating -- began teaching at the high school during my sophomore year in the mid-1980s. I don’t think many of us knew much about his background; what I do know is that we all loved him dearly.

We admired him as a teacher. But we soon realized that his lessons were not just about art, illustration and print-making but about friendship, kindness and generosity of spirit. When relationships between classmates became difficult or nasty, it was Mr. B that students sought for guidance. When others began to experience emotional dissonance, romantic difficulties or the peer pressure to experiment with drugs, all so typical of adolescence, it was Mr. B who gently counseled them.

He had seen it all before, you see; he had watched some of his contemporaries in the 1960s burn themselves out. But as a teacher -- and, more importantly, as a mentor and friend -- he was too caring, too conscientious and too sensitive to simply watch young people despair or potentially mess up their lives. He had experiences to share and teachings to impart that went well beyond the classroom.

When, a month or so ago, I first heard that Mr. B was ill and had little time left, I immediately contacted a fellow classmate (who is now a successful graphic designer). We talked about ‘doing something’ for Mr. B -- like flying him to Florence to be surrounded by art or putting together an illustrated card with the loving messages of his former students.

But time was not on our side. Today proved once again that if you don’t act immediately to express your love to someone, you may not have another chance. In this, I feel I am remiss.

I know that reaching out to someone you haven’t seen for years always seems like a daunting task; but all it really takes is a few minutes. I should have remembered this during the past few weeks and I should have reached out to Mr. B to tell him, for the last time, how much he meant to me (and so many others).

As I write these lines, I find myself faced with the difficulty of trying to sum up the essence of such a wonderful human being. Was he ‘affable and kind’? Was he ‘generous’ and giving’? Was he the role model many of us needed?

Well, yes, he was all those things. But he was so much more.

As an artist, he was a master draughtsman and a skilled visual designer. As a teacher, he was an inspiration, a source of gentle counsel, a font of wisdom. And as a human being and friend, well, in these areas he was unparalleled. How can anyone sum up these qualities?

There are many incidents and experiences that I can remember that illustrate what kind of a man -- and human being -- he was. It’s hard to choose among them; there were many memorable moments.

I remember Mr. B taking me aside one day during my senior year, as I thought about colleges (art school or traditional liberal arts was my dilemma at the time), and saying something like: Never mind your conceptual skills or your technical prowess; if you are not kind, if you do not love, if you do not develop your humanity, you will have achieved little in life.

I remind myself of these words (and of the way Mr. B lived his life) now, every time I feel impatient, every time I feel myself becoming irritated with someone, every time I catch myself being even a tiny bit disrespectful. Mr. B taught us not just about art but about what it means to be a good human being. Through his example, he taught us about the ‘art’ of living.

Perhaps in this simple little way, through these few words set on newsprint, I can help to keep his memory alive. He was the kindest, most gentle and patient teacher many of us have ever had and he deserves to be remembered.

Happily, his lessons in ‘being good’ will long outlive him; but today I mourn the loss that his death means -- to his family, the community and in my own life.

R.I.P., Mr. B.

A. Mario Fantini studied art with Mr. B from 1984-86. He lives in West Dummerston.