At six o'clock in the evening on a November day in 1952 the brethren gathered, as was their daily routine, in the dining hall of Sigma Phi fraternity house, the old Van Rensselaer Mansion (carted brick by brick, so the legend goes, from Troy NY to Williamstown MA). Something different was afoot. Over the fireplace along the center wall hung a large shrouded rectangle. Milton's words from "Paradise Lost" about God looking over the abyss, were intoned from outside the room. Two of the brethren dressed in their Air Force ROTC uniforms marched in and went directly to the fireplace. They removed the shroud. There was a portrait of me! Sig president in a Stalineque pose smoking a meerschaum pipe, militant legions in the background of fiery red. The unveilers saluted the picture and read in unison the legend below the portrait, "Today the Sig House, Tomorrow the World."
Silence ensued. Then a giggle sounded from the head of the head table, where the president sat and traditionally offered table grace. The room erupted in laughter and cheers.
That is, this portrait, painted by my sophomore year roommate Tom Hughes, was a work of affectionate caricature of a guy who provided a semblance of order for the John Belushis in grey flannels who, without the firm hand of the head at the head table, might have been inclined to a food fight (except that the food in our house was so good we wouldn't have dared waste it).
Sometime in the late 1970's when long sideburns were mandatory, I sat for a portrait urged on me by a painter in the congregation, Meredith Hupalo. She wasn't the first portraiturist to find oneself subject to my ministrations. In my first appointment, in 1956, the Long Ridge Methodist Church in West Redding CT, an exurbanite community that had attracted a few cultural luminaries (including Charles Ives and Jean Dalrymple) was a portraiturist of celebrities of the 1920's. Walter Tittle had hangings in the Yale University library. My reaction to Meredith's insistence, considering my association with Mr. Tittle, was "Why me?"
But we proceeded with sittings. Meredith allowed as how I was the worst and most reluctant subject, she had ever tried to paint. Nonetheless she produced a romanticized version of me, more movie star than poor parish priest. The piano players in the family are forced to look at it every time they play Debussy.
This past Saturday afternoon the phone rang. Stuart McGregor, former congregant from Valley Stream now resident in Sinking Springs PA, invited himself to our house for a short visit. He and a trio of family members were down by the riverside (Connecticut River, that is) in Hartford for Scottish Games. It seemed a convenient time to visit with us in our home, as had been suggested more than a few times in the past fourteen years of my retirement. But Stu had something else in mind. He appeared on our doorstep carrying a large rectangular item packaged in white foam. Another portrait of me!
Stu, in semi-retirement nourishes an avocation as an artist of landscapes and wild life. He decided to try his hand at a portrait. He used a photograph from the wedding of his younger daughter, at which I officiated eight plus years ago. There I am, still 190 pounds (which I now am not), in my Geneva overcoat of a robe from Oxford, England, looking as if I were delivering a sermon. A reality version of me.
You've come a long way, Bobby. Three portraits prove it. The heavy-handed collegian becomes the stand-in for Paul Newman becomes the old settled parson. Having inhabited the years between and the evolution implicit, I, a critical Christian, can report I am pleased with the outcome... and Stu for capturing it in acrylic.
I borrow for a benediction to this graphic posting a paragraph from a recent letter from a friend of comparable age and life-long employ:
Still, one is alive! And most of my contemporaries are not. All my university friends have gone now, and others have been reduced by Alzheimer's, etc. Life is an uncertain journey! But to have had a meaningful past is a great plus, and if one has loving and faithful children and grandchildren one can only rejoice. In a way, at 88.5 I have more psychic energy than ever before because not only have I 'been there and done that,' but there are a few people who love me because - and also in spite of - what I've been and done!
Let the three portraits say, "Ditto and Amen."