I first met Tomie dePaola, the way I imagine most people did, through his illustrations and books. Strega Nona and Big Anthony came to life for my kids and more recently for my grand-kids. The kindly every-person’s Italian grandma. Loving and feisty with an always-full-magic pot of pasta. Of course, she had to save her small town from being overrun by pasta when Big Anthony did what any little child could imagine doing — misusing the witch’s magic and getting into trouble.
During the early 2000s I was the photographer for the New Hampshire Philharmonic Orchestra. Most all the action took place on one side or the other of Hanover Street, utilizing the Odd Fellows building with its gilded-age manually-operated elevator doors for rehearsals and the elegant Palace Theatre for performances. In 2004, during their 100th season, I actually got to meet Tomie dePaola and to work with him and NHPO conductor Anthony Princiotti as I took photos of their rehearsals for the Children’s Holiday Concert which took place at the Capitol Center for the Arts, in Concord.
From the series of photos I took during the dress rehearsal came powerful images of both men deeply engaged in their respective crafts working in total synchronization without actually seeing each other. I used a framed and autographed print as a key part of a photo exhibition of that amazing time.
One final time I got to be with Tomie was just three years ago at a book signing event at Gibson’s bookstore in Concord. We were there with our granddaughter for story time. He was there sitting in a great big chair. The diminutive Tomie dePaola, surrounded by children and parents all settled in on the floor around him, as happy as any character from his books. He was reading Strega Nona and other stories aloud and answering children’s questions well into the afternoon.
Afterward, as everyone knows and expects, a line formed as the kids came up to meet Tomie, have their books autographed and share a few words with him. With my camera, I clearly looked and acted the role of photojournalist. He, the consummate professional, only looked directly at my camera at precisely the right moment for capturing the keepsake child and autographed book photo.
It wasn’t until I stepped into line, as it became my granddaughter’s turn, that he took a closer look at me. One quick mention of a NH Philharmonic afternoon with Tomie and Tony, transported us both back to that time and place. His smile and the twinkle in his eye gave my granddaughter the thrill of the moment as he lingered long enough with us to satisfy both her desire to be near this delightful and mischievous elf and my desire to capture that moment in time with my camera.
It was often mentioned by Tomie dePaola that he knew from the age of 4 that he wanted to be an artist and an author. He was encouraged in that endeavor by his family and somehow, at every event, his intense love for children and storytelling was obvious to both children and adults. He may be gone from us now, but we still have his many characters and story books to bring us comfort.
One of a kind.
Thanks for the smiles and memories.