I’ve written here before about my dad’s experiences at the Rusk Institute of Rehabilitation Medicine in New York City. Brush-Moore Newspapers, the company that owned the Canton Repository, where my dad worked, sent him to the Institute a number of times for surgeries and rehab, after he became a paraplegic in the early fifties.
I’ve noted in other writing his close encounters with Roy Campanella, the Dodgers shortstop who, injured in a 1958 auto accident, became a paraplegic, and his relationship with Alger Hiss, who visited him regularly when he was in New York for a long stint. Dad entertained us in his letters and after he got home in person with stories about these people, as well as Dr. Howard Rusk, the pioneering doctor who founded the hospital, and also other doctors, nurses, aides, and regular folk he encountered there. One of the people he met at the Institute, as we called it, was the artist Mark di Suvero, who had been seriously injured in a construction accident.
My dad would have been in his fifties by the time they met, when di Suvero was a thirty-something young artist. I remember that his real name was Marco Polo di Suvero and that he was born in Shanghai to Italian parents. He had a beard and apparently wore turtleneck sweaters and was already part of the counter-culture as it was then developing. My dad had educated, liberal sensibilities, but was a straightforward Middle American who eschewed affectation and regarded most eccentricities suspiciously. So, he was bemused and intrigued by di Suvero and liked him, too, all at the same time. They continued to exchange letters after my dad returned home. As far as I know, they’ve been lost.
At some point, a couple of decades ago, my sisters and I checked into di Suvero and discovered that he was a prominent artist, with sculptures at museums and public places all around the country, including the nearby (to us) Akron Museum of Art, who owns his Eagle Wheel. A couple of weeks ago, I was thinking about Mark di Suvero and realized that in 2014 he probably had a website. Which he does, here.
I ferreted out the contact information and sent Mr. di Suvero a short email, wondering if he remembered my dad and expressed our appreciation to him as someone who befriended (and was befriended by) my dad in far-off New York. Soon after, I received a message, passed along by an assistant.
It begins, “I remember your father from more than 50 years ago. I liked him because he was a good man, intelligent, and he brought something positive to the climate of the room at Rusk.” He goes on to say that he’s still in touch with another roommate, a quadriplegic named Lenny, a name I recall, who played chess with my dad. Lenny recalls that he and my dad continued to play chess after they had “graduated from Rusk.” It’s true that my dad maintained chess games long-distance. He had a cool cardboard book with little cardboard chess pieces you could fit into slots; you communicated your plays to your antagonist via postcards. Those games, perforce, went on for months.
The message goes on: “I was forced by political conviction (anti-war) to leave the country so I lost contact with your father.” Interesting, this little division caused by the Vietnam War. My dad, too, opposed the war and disagreed with some friends and family and co-workers in doing so. He even grew a modest beard in the late sixties, but soon shaved it off, worried about those affectations I mentioned before. My dad read I.F. Stone’s Weekly and The New Republic and was way ahead of many college students, including me, in opposing the war.
Mr. di Suvero’s email message ends like this: “I am sure that he was one of the bright citizens and has made me think in a deeply positive sense of Canton, Ohio.” It’s a great thing to encounter someone who knew my dad, who was born in 1911 and died in 1971. Not many such people left.
At the end of his message, Mark di Suvero offers to send me a Dreambook, a collection of photos of his work, which I’m waiting for, with great anticipation, now.