A memorial service to celebrate the life of Tracy Sugarman, longtime Westport artist, author and illustrator has been is planned for Sunday, May 26, at the Unitarian Church in Westport.

Sugarman, who died Jan. 20 at age 91, contributed prominently to the history of Westport as someone who expanded the town's horizons in the arts. Through his many talents, he also brought us to the front lines of World War II when he landed on Normandy Beach on D-Day and to the bitter and bloody civil rights battles of the Deep South, where he fought for freedom and equality.

Through his art work and writing, Sugarman helped many local residents to understand 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 always have taken for granted.

As a volunteer in Mississippi during the bloodiest and most horrendous moments of the 1960s civil rights battles, Sugarman -- like so many thousands of his black friends -- found himself inside looking out at the harshness of racial oppression.

Sugarman was seen as 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 writings.

"Mississippi blew me away," Sugarman once recalled in an interview with Westport News columnist Dan Woog. "The only pool in town 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."

Last December, Sugarman discussed his first novel "Nobody Said Amen," which tells the stories of two families -- 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."

Woody Klein