It's a privilege for me to be here today to pay tribute to a life that has touched all of us, most especially the Lea family – Sarah, Jim and Doris, Catherine and Daniel, extended family. But the rest of us, too, have been touched by Tom's life and work – in so many different ways. And his life was so rich and the fruits of his labor so varied, that each of us has a different perspective. I've been in a privileged position – I'm really blessed- to have represented Tom's art for almost 10 years and to have recorded his oral history. I've met many of you, you who are friends or have become collectors, and have heard Tom talk about so many of you. I know that Bill Kiely, who dug out of 14 feet of snow in Newfoundland to be here, idolized Tom when he was a little boy. He'd leave his home in Vinton to visit the big Pass of the North mural at our Federal building. Seeing those historic figures, larger than life, had a lasting impact. And I know Billy Bob Crim, a marine, thinks Tom a hero for his World War II correspondence – the paintings that express the heroism of a great generation. The Skinners from Wyoming and the Leavells from El Paso were part of happy days in the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming, an area that inspired one of Tom's novels, The Primal Yoke, and many of his paintings; the King Ranch family has said many times that it took Tom Lea to help them realize the rich history of old Captain King and the settling of the greatest ranch in the world. They're here. And the First Lady of the United States, Laura Bush, knew Tom Lea's books way before she met him in 1995. She's expressed so many times how much Tom and Sarah have meant to the President and her. And it was she who found the quote that our President has since made famous: "Sarah and I live on the east side of the mountain. It is the sunrise side, not the sunset side. It is the side to see the day that is coming, not the side to see the day that is gone."
Sarah and the family wanted this to be a celebration of Tom's life. And there is so much to celebrate. I'd like to take a few minutes to just share a very distilled version of this rich life that has touched us all. We've also brought a few paintings here at the front and some books at the back which we invite you to see. And we encourage you after the service to visit the Federal Building, the El Paso Museum of Art and Adair Margo Gallery to absorb some of Tom's amazing contributions on this day we're celebrating his life.
I sat with Tom over a six month period every Saturday to record his oral history. It immediately became evident to me that this was a person who paid attention – I mean really paid attention to what was around him - the people, the structures, the sounds and the smells. He remembered them all.
He was born July 11, 1907 at 4:44 in the morning at Hotel Dieu Hospital in El Paso. A day and time, his dad said, would ensure he'd be lucky at craps. When we'd talk he'd remember the most specific details of his early life in El Paso…the sounds of the fire horses trotting down Rio Grande Street; the excitement of being awakened by a tipica band playing Mananitas in front of their home on Nevada Street the dawn following his Dad's election as Mayor. He also recalled the details of being escorted to Lamar elementary school with his brother Joe after Pancho Villa put a price on his dad's head and threatened to kidnap the Lea boys; and the way General Pershing, at Mayor Lea's prodding, took a military parade a block out of the way so that he could salute young Tom who lay sick in his upstair's bedroom with scarlet fever. He was a left-handed boy, like his great grandson, and he recalled how his mother instructed the teacher that they meant to keep him that way. Tom has written that he grew up without childhood misfortune, or mistreatment, or misgiving, to make scars on his soul. And he was eternally grateful for that.
He showed talent early, adding drawings to his mother's letters to his dad when he was away at trial. He also onetime painted a flapper in the basement of their home on Nevada street. The flapper's dress was up to her knees. His mother was a devoted member of this church and didn't think much of that. In fact, Tom grew up in this church when it was located on Magoffin and my great-granddad baptized him. Zola Lea didn't think much of the flapper and it was removed immediately.
Tom deeply appreciated his teachers and always grew teary when mentioning Gertrude Evans who taught him art and Maude Durlin Sulllivan, the librarian who introduced him to great books of art. It was through these women that he was encouraged to attend the Chicago Art Institute when he turned 17. They felt comfortable the Leas would approve of a good "Western type" man named John Norton who painted murals and taught there. (although he got stuck in Florida, he'd signed up for Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders). So at age 17 Tom left home for the big city of Chicago where his world was broadened in multiple ways. He said he had a "soundly traditional school to learn in, a great museum to study in, and a fine library to read in – all under a widespread handsome roof on Michigan Avenue!" Tom did beautiful work in Chicago, several murals in some of Chicago's most beautiful art-deco buildings which are just now being revisited. He perfected his skills and was grateful for anything that came along – lettering for a five and dime store: talcum powder 59 cents, or drawing weekly portraits for the speakers scheduled at the Jewish Relief Fund. So often in my generation contemporary artists are exceptionally "prickly" about separating "fine art" from "commercial art" and not tainting one with the other. After knowing Tom, that seems so insecure to me now. He said that every job that came along gave him the opportunity to perfect his craft.
Tom married a fellow art student, Nancy Jane Taylor, and he made his way as an artist, even saving enough money for a trip to Europe – third class – where he was able to see the great European masters for the first time: Delacroix in France and Piero de la Francesca in Italy. He would weep talking about paying the sacristano a little tip and then climbing up on the choir stalls so he could touch the bottom of Piero's magnificent work.
The Lea's return to Chicago didn't last long because John Norton was ill with cancer and encouraged Tom to "row his own boat." He knew where he wanted to go immediately – a place he visited during summers as a child and which fascinated him with its Indian culture and Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Santa Fe. With the help of Freemont Ellis, he built a one-room adobe house (no water or electricity) while he scrapped together a living working for the Laboratory of Anthropology, illustrating Casas Grandes pottery decoration and working briefly for the WPA. Tragedy struck when Nancy developed appendicitis and surgery at the little hospital in Santa Fe led to infection from which she never recovered. Nancy died in 1936 and Tom left Santa Fe forever, returning to El Paso. It was his home from then on.
It was during this time Tom struck up relationships that produced some of the most memorable and beautiful books in Texas: J. Frank Dobie, doing illustrations for his books, and Carl Hertzog. He and Carl collaborated on books, not based on financial gain, but on subjects worthy of attention. The first was The Notebook of Nancy Lea which allowed Tom to share her life with those who were close to them both. It was, as so much of his work is, a personal conversation. Tom had done a lot of mural work in Chicago and, on one trip home, painted a mural on his family's dining room wall to entertain his little brother, Dick, who had been born twenty years after Tom. Now he began competing for murals under FDR's Section of Fine Arts, Treasury Department, winning competitions for the Ben Franklin Post Office in Washington, D.C. and the Federal Building here in El Paso as well as across the United States. It was when Tom was completing The Pass of the North in El Paso that he met his beloved Sarah who was in town visiting Catherine Pogson, a friend from Monticello, Illinois who had married an El Paso boy and friend of Tom's. Seeing Sarah was enough for Tom. He said from the moment he saw her, he knew she was his girl. I know you've heard the line: "do you want to come up to my apartment and see my etchings?" Tom's line was "do you want to come to the courthouse and see my mural?" She did, and he proposed to her the next night after a drive in McKelligon Canyon. They were married and, if we all had binoculars, we could see up on the big frontiersman's powder horn strap, towering many feet above us in the Pass of the North mural, three words painted: "Tom and Sarah." It's a love that continued, setting an example for us all. Jamey Clement captures it beautifully in a statement printed in the program.
When I think of Tom Lea's life, I think of a true life of faith. He excelled at his craft, and was prepared to meet the opportunities that came his way. If a door of opportunity opened, he stepped through it, never wallowing in self-doubt. In 1941 he unexpectedly received a telegram from "Editorial Staff, Life Magazine" inviting him to be a War Artist-Correspondent for Life magazine. He stepped into that world with what he called a kind of ignorant but confident hunger and, traveling over 100,000 miles during four separate tours, he went out and saw the preparations for war and the activity of war, returning home to make a trustworthy record. His are among the most memorable of all war paintings. His are also among the best portraits of World War II heroes including Claire Chennault and Jimmy Doolittle. His last tour was the landing of the first assault wave of the First Marines on Peleliu on September 15, 1944. In order to report accurately, he chose to put himself in harm's way. 1250 marines were killed and 5,275 wounded while taking Peleliu. The last five living Japanese, out of 13,600, surrendered. He said that, just as those next to him were ready and trained to shoot to kill, he was there prepared to report what he saw. When he returned home to Sarah and Jim, he said he couldn't rest, couldn't feel comfortable in the warmth of his home until he had documented what he saw for the men who had experienced it. From his sketches, eleven oils were painted, all of which were published in Life, June 11, 1945.
While away at war, he kept a little photo of Sarah in his pocket. The first painting he began after completing his paintings of war was the one you are looking at here. He loved the dress Sarah's mother had given her, and he loved the woman who wore it. He wrote that the painting was his votive offering, made in the gladness of being home. It depicts his beloved Sarah at exactly her height of five feet six inches in high heels. He did it without haste, spending twenty-six days painting the pattern of the little flowers on the dress. It took him two years to finish it, longer than any other painting, and, after that time he signed it, framed it, and gave it to Sarah. It is the first thing one notices when entering the Lea living room where Tom would see it everyday. And the family is so generous to share it with us today. Undoubtedly, it is one of the most beautiful images ever created in American art.
Tom had done some writing about the war when he was away and, once back in El Paso, determined that all he had to say couldn't be expressed with pencil on paper or oil on canvas. Writing took hold of him. Life, in order to keep Tom on for awhile, asked him to do a story on the beef cattle industry – from the arrival of cattle on the North American continent to their slaughter on the killing floors of Chicago. Again, Tom approached his task with a confident hunger to learn more. But what he discovered was a love, not of domestic cattle but of the ganado prieto, the fierce fighting bulls. This led to the writing of Tom's first novel, The Brave Bulls, which became a bestseller and was turned into a motion picture starring Mel Ferrer. Not only did he write the book – he taught himself to write – but he illustrated it as well with controlled, stylized ink drawings, formal and elegant like bullfighting. His next book was The Wonderful Country, a story set in a fictitious town called Puerto – based on our city of El Paso. He also illustrated it with drawings very different than those for The Brave Bulls. Here he used very roughly sketched drawings, with almost staccato marks like blowing sand. He said he never used what he considered a Tom Lea style, but the syle his subject demanded. The Wonderful Country also became a bestseller and was turned into a movie starring Robert Mitchum. There are many anecdotes of the filming in San Miguel de Allende where Tom was asked to write the screen play. When the producers became overly involved, wanting to change the story to suit what they thought the public wanted, Tom walked out. When his friend the Director Bob Parrish pleaded with Tom to stay, saying, "But Tom, what if it's not a good movie?" Tom replied without hesitation: "I just won't go to see it!" He also had wonderful stories of Robert Mitchum's bad-boy behavior – horrible language and an arrogant and demanding manner. Until, that is, Sarah arrived on the set. Tom said you'd think Bob Mitchum was an angel then – like now, Sarah brought out the best in people.
In addition to other works of fiction, Tom tried his hand at history, writing and illustrating the two volume history of The King Ranch. The big house on the ranch, when one enters today, has in the grand entry hallway, the illustrations Tom did for The King Ranch. The story of this book says a lot about Tom Lea. When he was hired, he and Bob Kleberg thought it would take about a year to complete the project and they agreed to this. The result was to be a single volume to commemorate the ranch's centennial anniversary. But the more Tom learned, the more the project grew. There was just as much story as there was ranch and it was an epic story no one had put together accurately. It grew and grew and grew and, four years after the ranch's centennial, the two volumes of The King Ranch were released. Tom never requested a change in the contract, he just had to do justice to a magnificent subject. In the end, Bob Kleberg made it up to him and they became lifelong friends, a friendship that has lasted through two more generations. But, at the time, doing a job well and thoroughly was infinitely more important to Tom than payment.
Other books were written: The Hands of Cantu about the arrival of fine horses on the North American continent, and In the Crucible of the Sun about King Ranch operations in Australia before Tom returned to painting. This time in his studio with the subjects inspired primarily by the landscape and figures of the southwest, his home. These paintings are primarily in the homes of his friends. He never sought a dealer to help him or a museum to collect him. Instead, he had a list of those who requested paintings, calling them when a new one was complete. And they all were sold. Every last one of them.
Invocation is one of the last large-scale easel paintings Tom completed before loosing his eyesight. It was done for a company started in El Paso which grew into a large company in Washington, D.C. which eventually sold to Ford Aerospace. Tom said he liked having the prospector looking up towards the top of old Mount Franklin, perhaps trying to spy the glimmer of gold. Like all of his paintings, Invocation says something of our friend Tom Lea. He was always looking out and always looking up. In an interview he did with me for a January 2000 publication, when he thought he'd said all he had to say but, like always, came forth with spoken gems, he said "What I've tried to do as a painter is to express, when it comes down to it, the great privilege of living in such a majestic and mysterious world made by the Almighty. We have the privilege of living in this life in this marvelous place. And writing and painting to me don't have anything to do with who I am and what I do, but with what is so wonderful about what's out there. Having love in your life, having energy enough to pursue a thing with all your might and all your spirit. You're not telling anyone about how good you are, but about how good they are because look at what they can see and do and feel in this marvelous life."
Those of us who are here to celebrate Tom lea's life realize how, in the manner of a humble giant, he encouraged us to LIVE with a capital L. "To see and do and feel in this marvelous life."
Words spoken by Adair Margo in conducting Tom Lea's memorial service at First Baptist Church, February 1, 2001.