Out of the Woods / Testimonial to a friend who walked the walk
Published 11:39 am, Wednesday, January 30, 2013
He had the eye of a superb artist, the passion of a man totally absorbed in a profound cause, the mind of a sensitive, deeply-caring writer/journalist, the intellect of a professor seeking truth in all of its mysterious forms, and the hearty laugh and friendly smile of a man who knew how to live life to its fullest -- and, moreover, inspired those who socialized with him to do the same.
I have not stopped thinking about Tracy Sugarman, so energetic and vigorous until the moment he died suddenly at his home in Westport Jan. 20 at age 91.
Neither has Tom Ghianuly, owner of the Compo Barber Shop in the Compo Shopping Center. Tom, who knows an incalculable number of men by first name in town who frequent his shop, told me last Saturday when I dropped by for a haircut, "I still can't believe it. I am still in shock. He came into my place for so many years. He was always so friendly. ... I feel as if he is still with us."
I think Tommy speaks for the thousands of people who knew Tracy Sugarman as one of the most nationally recognized, yet modest people in the history of our famed artistic community. Without a doubt, in the 62 years he lived here, he contributed as much or more than anyone to the cultural legacy of Westport.
Sugarman's name can be found prominently in the history of our town as someone who not only expanded our horizons in the arts, but who, through his many talents, brought all of us to the front lines of World War II when he landed on D-Day, and to the bitter and bloody civil rights battles of the deep South, where he once again was among those who fought for freedom and equality. He helped us to understand through his writings and artwork, the deep and enduring suffering of black people who had never known what it was like to truly live, breathe, and taste freedom in the way those of us who are white have always taken for granted.
When it came to the color line, Tracy -- whose more than 6-foot frame stood ramrod tall -- was one of the most compassionate persons I have ever met. As a volunteer in Mississippi during the bloodiest and most horrendous moments of the civil rights battles in the 1960s, Tracy -- like so many thousands of his black friends -- found himself inside looking out at the harshness of racial oppression.
As the cliche goes, he not only talked the talk, but he walked the walk.
I think Tracy was one of those very few white men in America who could truly fathom what it was like to be black in the South in the 1960s. At least that is what comes through in much of his art and writing.
"Mississippi blew me away," Tracy recalled in an interview with my fellow Westport News columnist, Dan Woog. "The only pool in town (down South) was closed, so blacks wouldn't contaminate it. Only five percent of blacks were registered to vote. Convincing poor, illiterate (black) people to let us (white Northerners) stay with them in their homes was huge."
"It was a crazy time," Tracy told Woog. "I was more scared in Mississippi than I had been on D-Day." In World War II, he was backed up by thousands of ships, planes and soldiers.
Down South, he said, "We couldn't call the press, the clergy, the mayor or the police for help."
Only last month, Tracy discussed his new novel "Nobody said Amen," which tells the stories of two families' lives, one white and one black, as they try to adjust to the arrival of what they perceived, at first, to be "outside agitators" in the Mississippi Delta in the 1960s. It is fitting, I think, that his first and only novel portrayed the lives of people he knew so well.
His wife, Gloria Cole Sugarman, a noted journalist in her own right, knew him better than anyone. She summed up his life in a sentence in an article in this newspaper recently: "He was an extraordinary man. He was the nicest person I ever knew." Those of us who had the privilege of knowing him have similar feelings.
Woody Klein is a Westport writer. His "Out of the Woods" appears every other Wednesday. He can be reached at email@example.com.