Tracy Sugarman: Amen!

You may hear that old adage “You’re never too old to try something new,” and scoff. Or shuffle off to play shuffleboard.

Tracy Sugarman takes it to heart.

The Westport icon — a famous illustrator for 40 years, who published 3 non-fiction books about his experiences as a Freedom Rider during the civil rights movement, and 1 based on his service as an officer in World War II (including storming the beach on D-Day) — has just written his 1st novel.

He’s 91 years old.

Tracy Sugarman

Tracy Sugarman

Nobody Said Amen is the fictionalized tale of 2 families — one white, one black — as they navigate the challenges of social change in the Mississippi Delta.

It’s a story of fighting for the right to vote, the Ku Klux Klan, and love. They’re not easy topics to write about — but Tracy Sugarman was there.

He was already in his 40s when he traveled to Ruleville, Mississippi in 1964 and ’65. His training group included 3 young men named Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney. On Tracy’s 2nd day in Mississippi, they disappeared.

He’d headed south as an artist, intending to draw the scenes he saw. “I was an observer for about 2 hours,” he says. “Then I become a participant. This was way too important to be a voyeur.”

Tracy’s involvement in the civil rights era changed his life. He developed a deep friendship with Fannie Lou Hamer. She and many other movement leaders visited his Westport home.

Tracy Sugarman was grand marshal at Westport's 2011 Memorial Day ceremony.

Tracy Sugarman was grand marshal at Westport’s 2011 Memorial Day ceremony.

Two of Tracy’s books — Stranger at the Gates and We Had Sneakers, They Had Guns — chronicled the civil rights era. My War was a collection of letters and drawings he’d sent to his young wife, June, during the harrowing days of World War II. Drawing Conclusions was his rendition, in words and pictures, of the biggest historical, societal and cultural stories of his time.

For nearly 90 years, he never imagined writing fiction.

But as he worked on Drawing Conclusions — it was published 5 years ago, when he was “just” 86 — he figured it might be fun to try a novel.

It took 2 years (though, he points out, “I did other things too”).

“I was charmed by this world I was inventing,” Tracy says of the writing process. “People just showed up, and insisted on being in it. They were characters I’d never met!”

He had no idea how the story would end. But — as with everything he’s done — Tracy made it all work out.

His publisher — Syracuse University Press — liked Amen. But after a change of editors, they decided fiction was not right for an academic publisher.

Tracy asked Maxine Bleiweis about self-publishing. The Westport Library director put Tracy in touch with David Wilk, a Westonite and expert in the field.

Nobody Said AmenThat’s how Nobody Said Amen became a book. (Officially, it’s “a Morris Jesup book, in association with the Westport Library.”)

More importantly, it’s on Amazon — in paperback and Kindle.

If it’s surprising to learn that a 91-year-old has self-published a book available on e-readers, you don’t know Tracy Sugarman. He looks, sounds — and thinks — like the young people he so admires.

“All these young kids put themselves in harm’s way,” he says of the Freedom Riders. “They thrived, survived, and changed Mississippi.”

That experienced reinforced an idea he’d had since World War II, 2 decades earlier: “Only young people can change the country. They’re wonderfully inspiring. They certainly changed my life.”

So, as he closes in on a century of living, what’s next?

“Everyone says you’re very old to write a novel,” Tracy says.  “Well, I don’t feel it!” He’s ready for plenty of new challenges.

“You’re as young as you feel” is one adage Tracy Sugarman proves true.

Here’s another: “You’re never too old to try something new.”

(Tracy Sugarman will discuss Nobody Said Amen at the Westport Library this Saturday, Dec. 15, at 2 p.m. Books will be available for purchase and signing.)

4 responses to “Tracy Sugarman: Amen!

  1. With unbridled excitement, deep respect and always love, Tracy, Wow! –Karl Decker

  2. It was so good to see your picture on Dan’s 06880, Tracy.
    You may not remember me. I am Michele Smolen, Donald’s wife.
    I’ve lived in L.A. for 20 years and am in love with 06880 because it keeps me still feeling like a Westporter and brings such dear memories and pictures, such as yours,, to me.
    Keep well and keep writing!
    Warm wishes to you for the Holidays
    Michele

  3. Tracy, so good to hear what you are doing. I was a classmate of Dick, had just come to this country from Israel, a WWII refugee. when we met. I had no idea you fraught in the war….the things we don’t know about our friend’s parents.

    I have been trying to find where Dick is living. We have a house in Niantic CT and I thought he was living somewhere around there. Could you fill me in on his whereabouts? Thanks, Lidy Engel

  4. It’s always intriguing to learn about the surprising turns in Tracy’s road. My late mother and Tracy were illustrator pals back in the day and Dick was in my dad’s Boy Scout troop. Lidy, you are so right about our ignorance of others’ parents. For example, I was unaware until adulthood that your parents helped lead the breakout at the Sobibor concentration camp. When I was growing up the Engels (your bro Freddie and I were high school friends/classsmates) were were just another family who came to Westport from somewhere else — Israel and Holland. My parents knew your family’s history, though. My dad was a WWII paratrooper who helped liberate the Landsberg concentration camp and passed through Dachau and your family was a living symbol of all that he had witnessed. My mother gave me Tracy’s WWII memoir years ago. I read it and still have it. It, too, was a revelation.