Painting (c) by Jesse Joshua Watson, 2009
As the world of children’s literature says its goodbyes to Tomie dePaola, I’m thinking back to my one and only encounter with him. I don’t recall the year but it must have been in the late 1970s or early 1980s. Tomie was the featured speaker at the children’s book festival in Warrensburg, Missouri. In those years the authors and artists were housed in a dormitory on the campus of the University of Central Missouri. Campus rules prohibited the consumption of alcohol anywhere, and that definitely went for the dorms. Phil Sadler, who started the festival in cahoots with Ophelia Gilbert, somehow managed to keep some beer and wine stashed in the room where he stayed so those with a thirst could drop by his place after hours to visit and share some late night cheer.
Anyway, we were housed two to a room with a shared bathroom between each pair of rooms. The trick was to remember to lock the bathroom’s other door when you were in it but remember to unlock it when you left. The year I’m remembering, David Melton and dePaola were roommates on one side of the common bath and my roomie was John Briggs, then owner/president of Holiday House Publishing. John was also there to make a speech.
I remember Tomie as an imp. He was the life of the party, plotting aloud about what he might say the next day during his talk. I don’t remember what it was — something outrageous — but we were all wondering if he would actually do it. He wound up in my side of the suite sitting on the side of my bed and held court until the wee hours. He wanted something to drink so I went to my car and brought in my stash of vodka, which we sipped without ice in paper coffee cups. A crowd gathered as word of the impromptu party grew to include some co-eds gaga over being in the presence of the one and only Tomie dePaolo. Briggs, who published dePaolo, didn’t seem much amused by the gaiety and kept to his side of the small room the best he could.
Next day Tomie gave his talk — I don’t remember if he followed through with his threat or what he said or if I enjoyed it — and signed a ton of books, each with a quick, hand-drawn heart that sent the recipients off with moony grins.
I was never around dePaola again and only saw him now and again at conferences. I think the last time might have been in Colorado ILA many years ago. I’m sorry we have lost Tomie. I’m grateful for what he contributed to the world so many of us inhabit. R.I.P. Tomie dePaola.