Tomie received the Regina Medal from the Catholic Library Association on April 5, 1983. This is his acceptance speech:
Well, what a pleasure, thrill and honor for me to stand here today to accept the Regina Medal. Awards are funny things. They exist “out there” and you know about them and when other people win them you say, “Oh, how nice for them.” And then you whisper to yourself, “But it’s all politics…”
I do that every year during the Academy Awards when my choice for best movie, actor, actress, etc. doesn’t get it.
And now, an award that I have been so aware of – and so jealous of past recipients – is given to me. Well, there can’t possibly have been politics involved – and if there was – it was all on the side of the Angels.
I don’t think my Irish mother wrote to everyone or my Italian relatives put out a contract. But, if they did, please don’t tell me!
Winning awards is wonderful, but so much more so when the award is for a lifelong (up to now – so far) contribution to the field of children’s literature. (And I know I don’t have to say to all of you how important that field is. If only the rest of the world knew…) And when the recognition and honor come from a group that’s so tied into my own psyche (but more on that in a bit).
But being awarded the Regina Medal is not without its dangers. On a recent trip I was going to speak to a very large group of reading teachers and the woman who was to introduce me was checking on some vital statistics. She asked if there were anything else she might include and I told her about the Regina Medal. “Oh,” she said, “That’s an award for the body of your work, isn’t it?”
Before I could answer, a woman who was hovering nearby with that “I know you” look in her eye bounded in and said, “Oh, oh, oh, you won an award for your body?”
Ah, if it were only true – and possible. It’s like the article in PUBLISHERS WEEKLY several years ago reporting on the International Children’s Book Fair in Bologna, Italy. It mentioned the woman who represents my work for foreign rights. It said that Ruth Gottstein displayed the whole of Tomie dePaola’s corpus.
I’m so glad they left it intact and didn’t carve it up into pieces for relics, like some of the poor saints.
I like being told by all of you by this beautiful medal that, as my Irish mother would say, “I done good.” That’s wonderful. And finally I am here with a Catholic audience and I can finally share publicly what growing up in a Catholic household had to do with my becoming an artist. (I often share great family stories with my audiences but I almost always leave out the Catholic part.) Now, my psyche will have a chance to feel whole.
My first remembered encounter with my Catholic heritage came at the age of three. It was also one of my first public appearances with a good sized audience with lights, incense and all that other good stuff.
It was at a small church that would later on become our parish church and it was a Children’s Liturgy. The children were singing bravely and I joined in – good and loud. My mother tried to hush me and a good argument began.
“Now Mother,” said Fr. McCran, the wonderful old pastor. “I’ll handle this,” and he came down off the altar and said to me, “These boys and girls have been practicing their songs for a long time. Now, be a good boy and let them sing and when they’re finished, if you want to, you can sing a song all by yourself.” My mother, I’m sure, tried to stop Father from his offer. My dad left – that I’m really sure of!
Well, the children sang uninterrupted and then it was my turn. I walked right up to the altar before I could be grabbed. After all, I was going to sing a solo and I fully intended to face the audience!
Good old Fr. McCran. It didn’t faze him a bit. “Alright, sonny,” he said. “What would you like to sing?”
“On the Good Ship Lollipop!”
Believe it or not, the organist knew it and I sang my heart out – complete with Shirley Temple gestures. First Folk Mass in history!
When we eventually moved into that parish I became a regular soloist but kept my repertoire to more orthodox numbers.
Growing up Catholic was great for my visual education, too. St. Joseph’s Church, where I started out, was the rich West Side Irish Parish, as opposed to St. Rose which was the rich East Side Irish Parish, was filled with what the sisters who taught Sunday School (I went to public school so had Sunday School instruction) called ART. There were pictures of saints and biblical scenes painted all over the whole church – even on the ceiling. The Sistine Chapel had nothing on St. Joseph’s. And one day the Lady’s Guild or some other parish group bought a new statue.
After all, there was only the Little Flower and St. Patrick at the back of the church. St. Joseph, of course, the Immaculate Heart of Mary and the Sacred Heart of Jesus, St. Ann with Mary as a young girl at her knee, the Infant of Prague who had a wardrobe that didn’t stop, and St. Anthony at the front of the church.
But there wasn’t a St. Lucy. The sister was so excited that a statue of St. Lucy was coming. It seems she had a devotion to the saint. It was arriving on a weekday! I convinced my mother to let me go to the church which was not on the way home from school. After all, I had to see this new saint and it had to be before Sunday.
I loved churches in the afternoons. They were dark, smelled of candle wax from all of the votive lights and incense from Benediction. And they were so quiet.
Well, there she was. Up in front. I blessed myself with lots of holy water, genuflected several times and walked up the side aisle.
Let me tell you, it was worth it! I mean, my good friend Jeannie Houdlette who was a Congregationalist and didn’t have any statues in her church (I knew because Cub Scout meetings were held in the basement of the Congregational church and once I crept up the stairs and looked inside). Anyway, Jeannie would really be jealous this time because not only was St. Lucy beautiful but she had glass eyes – four of them. Two in her head and two on the plate in her hand. Now, if that wasn’t art…
I could go on and on about my experiences in show biz and art in the Catholic Church but we’d be here all afternoon.
So let me leap forward to art school in Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York. That’s when I began to find out about the incredible art heritage that was mine not only because I was Italian and Irish but because I was brought up Catholic. But along with that knowledge of my heritage came a lot of confusion. What about all those plaster saints and fake Gothic churches that my life was surrounded with. None of it seemed to fit with the historical. And could I be a contemporary artist and with impeccable (at least I thought I had impeccable) taste and put up with all of it. I found out I didn’t have to. I found out that maybe I could create some new art in the service of the church myself.
I literally devoured the work of Georges Rouault. I was introduced to the Benedictine Nuns at Regina Laudis Monastery in Bethlehem, Connecticut. Especially Mother Placid, she was the artist, became my real buddy! (By that time I had decided to enter a Benedictine Monastery myself. The Benedictines were big on art I found out.)
And it was there that I met an artist who really had a great deal to do with my standing here today. Lauren Ford (who was immortalized by Elsa Lancaster as Mrs. Potts, the artist, in the film “Come to the Stable” – it was loosely based on the founding of Regina Laudis) became my mentor.
I would go visit Mother Placid at Regina Laudis whenever I could and I would always stay for Vespers. Lauren, who lived nearby, always came to Vespers, too, with her companion Fanny Delehanty. Lauren would always invite me down to Sheepfold, her house, for “a little chat before you head home, Dearie.” And when I got there out would come the bourbon from the grandfather’s clock (it seems her grandfather always kept his booze in the clock to hide it from his wife and Lauren continued the tradition). We would drink and talk and laugh. Occasionally a sheep would run through the house or canaries would be having babies. It was a lively atmosphere. And Lauren who was no spring chicken drove a Jeep – a red one! And she was a wonderful artist. She painted scenes of the life of Christ as though they took place in her barn and house.
It was Lauren Ford who helped me when the monastic life didn’t work for me. I was a mess. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t eat and I didn’t give a damn about being an artist. I was a total failure.
I went to Regina Laudis to get my head together and sure enough after several days Lauren invited me down after Vespers for a “chat.”
She sat me down in her studio with paper and paints and her canaries. “Draw me something,” she said.
“Oh I don’t know if I can,” I said.
“Sure you can. After all you and I are lay-brothers,” she smiled. “Our art is our ‘Ora et Labora’ – our prayer and work. You don’t have to be a monk to be a saint, but you do have to be an artist if you want to save your soul. And who knows,” she said with a big laugh, “you might save a few more on the way.”
Well, I hope so. I hope so. I hope my books and my drawings and paintings contain a little of what Lauren Ford talked to me about that day a long time ago.
I certainly have rambled on. But let me say thank you once more for this honor. And because I’ve watched year after year the Academy Awards I have to do the traditional thanks to all the people who have really made this dream possible besides my mother and father and sisters and relatives and God.
First of all there is my wonderful agent, Florence Alexander. Almost 20 years ago, Florence took a chance with my portfolio – thank goodness.
And then, all the people at the publishing houses who listened to Florence and gave me work – and are still giving me work.
Some of those important people are here with me today. A piece of this belongs to them, too.
There’s Maria Modugno, Manager of Children’s Books at Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Margaret Frith, my editor, and Ellen Teguis, Marketing Director of Children’s Books, at G. P. Putnam’s Sons, and Margery Cuyler, my editor, Kate Briggs, Marketing Director, and John Briggs, the President and owner of Holiday House.
Thank you to all of you.
And then there’s my assistant, Bob Hechtel. Bob not only answers the phone, answers the mail, plants thousands of tulip bulbs every fall, mows the lawn all summer, eats my cooking and cleans the kitty litter box, but gives me so much support and encouragement, especially on those dark days when nothing seems to go right. He has made himself indispensable and I’m glad.
Thank you Bob.
And finally – all of you. You have not only paid me a very great compliment but have given me an even greater challenge with this honor.
And as Walter De La Mare said, “Only the rarest kind of best in anything is good enough for the very young.”
I’ll do my best with the rest of the time given to me. I’ll try to do you all proud.
Thank you and God bless!