Sunday, August 15, 2010
My Father, 'Mac' McCracken
(reposted from last year)
To look at his artwork, go here:
I lost my Dad, Willard Eastman McCracken, Jr., on Saturday, August 15. He was diagnosed with esophageal cancer at the end of 2005, the same kind of cancer that took Ann Richards and Molly Ivins, and generally progresses like wildfire - once it's big enough to be noticed, you usually have between 3-6 months to live. However, miraculously, he was treated successfully enough to have several years of remission - years in which my kids and husband and I were able to spend precious time with him, and time that I could share the most important ideals of my life - my progressive activism - with him, and he was able to see my book published and read my dedication to him. I'm so very grateful for that extra time that many people never get. My father was my inspiration and my biggest cheerleader, and he valued the qualities in me that I value in myself (and that not everyone else appreciates!) His expectations for me were not for money, status, or fame, but to follow my dreams and be true to them and to myself, and I'm so glad I was able to make him proud of me.
What follows is what I have written for his memorial - if you're interested, click on 'read the rest' (and, yes - that is who you think it is in the second photo!)
Willard Eastman “Mac” McCracken, Jr.
Willard Eastman “Mac” McCracken, Jr. was a true Renaissance man in an age of compartmentalization and specialization. A painter, inventor, philosopher, humanitarian, writer, humorist, curator, actor, mathematician, raconteur and educator, he entered this world with an enthusiasm for art, for learning, for teaching and for people that stayed with him his entire life and inspired everyone who came across his path.
Born on October 24, 1929 in Stafford, Connecticut to Willard, Sr. and Florence McCracken, he grew up in the small town of Charlton, Massachusetts, in an area where freedom-loving Scots-Irish McCrackens had lived for a century and a half. His great-grandfather George Washington McCracken's wife Mary Edgerly Thornton was the great-great-granddaughter of William Thornton, brother of Matthew Thornton, the last signer of the Declaration of Independence. His father owned a garage in Charlton and was a town selectman, while his mother owned a motel, and the rugged New England determination and independent spirit of his forebears played no small part in the formation of Mac’s indomitable personality.
Mac graduated from high school at sixteen, and was admitted to the Massachusetts College of Art in Boston, where he earned his B.S. in Art and Education. He received his M.A. in Art and Education from Columbia University, Teachers College, after which he joined the Army, where he was a radio operator in Alaska - the one place in the United States that could conceivably be colder than Massachusetts. While stationed in Alaska, Mac submitted an entry in a competition to design a monument to honor the patron of Eielson AFB, and his entry was selected as the winning design, along with that of a USAF lieutenant, to be used for the monument.
After teaching at SUNY Buffalo, he moved with his family to Tampa, FL and the University of South Florida, where he helped transition the department of Fine Arts from the umbrella of the College of Liberal Arts to its own college and develop the first charter and organization of the college. He was an associate professor of Arts and Education, and became the assistant dean of the College of Fine Arts. Later on he was an associate with the critically-acclaimed Graphicstudio, and helped organize Graphicstudio archives at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. He participated in Robert Rauschenberg’s Overseas Culture Interchange, traveling to Russia with Rauschenberg, and worked extensively with him over the years. He was an authority on Cézanne, and dove deep into the meaning of the artist’s work and what he was trying to accomplish. Mac’s own paintings were filled with vibrancy and strength, surprise, passion and often humor. A McCracken painting was one that stayed in your mind’s eye and resonated in your soul long after you walked away from it. But his true mission and passion was art education – finding a way to bring an understanding and appreciation of the transformative qualities of art to all people, and helping them find the art in their own lives.
Mac’s art and scholarship, prodigious as it was, was merely part of an expression of who he was as a human being. He was a man who loved people, and people loved him. He was comfortable in all walks of life, and found something in common with every person he met. He had a big, open heart and a rich, deep vein of humor that delighted and charmed those around him. He loved children and understood them in a way that drew kids of all ages to him like a magnet. He dressed up in ridiculous costumes, sang silly self-penned songs, and generally set everyone to laughing – himself as much as anyone else. He was a joyous and loving father to his own children, a beloved Baha to his grandchildren, and any child he encountered became his own – he always had room in his heart for a child. In later life, with his white beard and rotund waistline, he delighted in playing Santa Claus, and he had the jovial personality to go along with the appearance.
One of his great inspirations and influences was Albert Einstein, and, like his hero Einstein, Mac was a humanitarian as well as an intellectual – indeed, the one was the expression of the other. His brilliant mind was only matched by his tremendous heart. Mathematics was one of his hobbies, and he spent fifty-five years looking for a solution to the Four-Color problem, which, to his great delight, he finally discovered in his last years.
Mac was a rabid sports enthusiast, but especially a golf fanatic, and near the end of his life was able to fulfill his dream of going to the Master’s in Augusta – and was cheering in the stands along with his daughter Leigh, his son-in-law Jay, and his granddaughter Jena when the Florida Gators won the NCAA basketball championship on the same day, and the four of them also experienced the thrill of being at Game 7 of the Stanley Cup playoffs when the Tampa Bay Lightning prevailed. Another life goal was reached when the Red Sox finally won the World Series in 2004. (His mother Florence had the distinction of being alive for both Red Sox World Series victories!) In 1994 he and his son Willard III made a journey to Massachusetts to go to a Red Sox game together at Fenway Park – yet another long-held ambition realized. When they went to Charlton to visit old haunts, they stopped by his former school, which was shaded by a huge old oak tree. “I remember planting that tree on Arbor Day,” Mac remarked. He dove head-first into every kind of creative endeavor. He was a prolific writer; he was an actor in many USF plays; he played a mean blues guitar and was a jazz aficionado, having spent much of the ‘50s in New York City, where he hung out with the great jazz musicians of the day, as well as the Beat writers and artists who, with him, were pushing the boundaries and exploring and expanding the definition of art, music and literature in our culture.
Family was the center of Mac’s life, and laughter and love was the woof and warp that held us all together. He was immensely proud of all his children and grandchildren, and they all adored their Baha in return. He took care of his parents in their last years, putting all else aside. When he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer in 2005, not long after his mother passed, the family were prepared for the worst, as this particular kind of cancer is often terminal by the time it is discovered. Thanks to his flinty Yankee stubbornness, his brilliant oncology team and his wonderful physician and friend Dr. Jai Cho, with a combination of radiation, chemotherapy and some surgical procedures he was able to be treated and have several years of remission. The treatments were grueling, and he was often in great pain and unable to eat, yet he never complained, instead insisting on living life the way he always had. The silver lining inside the dark cloud of cancer is that the family were given extra, precious time to spend with Mac, especially his grandchildren in California, who developed a strong bond with their grandfather who had been three thousand miles away. They will always remember the card games, the pool games, the pancakes and chocolate-chip waffles that their Baha made for them, the goofy photos - Baha, down on his knees, with a pair of shoes in front of them, and a top hat and cane, calling himself ‘Toulouse-Lautrec’ - and the stack of jazz CDs that he gave his saxophone-playing grandson Sam – CDs of the many jazz artists he knew as friends in New York. These last few years, though heartbreakingly difficult, enabled his family to come together to share with him how much they loved him, and to revel in the warmth and love and humor that was so much a part of him. He also lived to give away his youngest daughter Breeze at her wedding last year, and his newest grandson Kingston James came home two days before Mac’s passing. He joined his son Will at church, and attended Mass every day for the last six months of his life, which afforded him much peace and solace.
Mac McCracken was truly one-of-a-kind – brilliantly unique, incredibly gifted, unusual and wonderful. Anyone who met him never forgot him, and anyone who knew him loved him. His lifelong friend, mentor and colleague, artist Dr. Don Saff, described him as the ‘philosopher-in-residence’ of the USF Fine Arts department – a ‘cerebral humanitarian’. A visionary, a perpetual scholar besotted with learning, yet earthy and real, to Mac art and life were interwoven – indeed, intrinsically inseparable. He demonstrated that art is not only for the elite and sophisticated, but is the expression of the very core of who we are as humans, and is as necessary as air to human existence. Mac was a soulful man, in every meaning of the word. He thought big, lived big, loved big. He dreamed impossible dreams, and believed wholeheartedly in the power of possibilities. Failure may have come to him at times, as it must to all of us, but never a failure of heart or soul. Without our artists, our dreamers, our idealists, those who risk everything to dare to look beyond and tell us what they see there, life would be bleak indeed – even pointless. He reached for his dreams with the bright-eyed optimism of a child, and if he failed to reach them, they were no less real and valuable. Mac McCracken possessed the magical power of being able to show us those possibilities, to weave those dreams that bring beauty and light and joy to life, and to inspire us to reach for them, too.
Alicia McCracken Morgan
August 20, 2009
Posted by Alicia Morgan at 6:32 PM