Remembering Tracy Sugarman

On December 10 — a little over a month ago — I wrote an “06880” story on one of my favorite people, Tracy Sugarman. The occasion was the publication of his 1st novel — at age 91.

Tracy died yesterday. He lay down for a nap, and did not wake up.

The best way to remember this remarkable Westporter — and American — is by reprinting last month’s post. For other “06880” stories, click the links below:

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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.”


20 responses to “Remembering Tracy Sugarman

  1. I remember him. God bless

  2. What a remarkable man, such sad news.

  3. TAPS, Tracy, taps.

  4. We are a lesser community.

  5. Lisa Marie Alter

    We were walking down Owenoke yesterday afternoon with our new puppy and were there when the EMS arrived at his home…

    Since then, we had been hoping for the best (but the “sirens in-no sirens out” did not portend a good outcome)… Then again, that is how I hope to go at the ripe old age of 91… taking a peaceful nap.

    Tracy made quite an impression on my son (now 13) when he spoke at a Martin Luther King vacation day camp at WHS several years ago about his work in civil rights – he came back to WHS several times while my son was at camp there.

    We would see him walking past our Compo Beach home at a vigorous pace, with a smile or greeting at the ready.

    How interesting that he chose the day before Martin Luther King Day to go to heaven…

    Betcha he’s up there partying with Dr. King right now 😉

    RIP, Tracy…
    or as they might say in heaven,
    Party On.

  6. Without trying, he was an elegant gentleman.

  7. He was a friend of the family when I was a kid here in Westport in the 1950s. My sister posed for one of his illustrations. After being away for many years, I returned to Westport in 1995. Seeing Tracy around town was a reminder of the way town was when I was a kid, when many veterans of WWII, who were also involved in the arts ( as was my father), lived and created here. A few days ago I saw Tracy getting into his car in the Trader Joe parking lot, but i didnt say hello. He looked well, although a little older than the last time I had seen him. I always figured there’d be plenty of chances to say hello in the future.
    Rest in peace, Tracy. You will be missed.

  8. Bonnie Scott Connolly

    I also remember Tracy growing up in Westport and my brother Jack to this day remains good friends with Tracy’s son, Dick Sugarman. What a fine man and a great legacy for Westport.

  9. Oh dear. My brother Tim just passed on this sad news – reaching me just as I’ve returned from Obama’s 2nd inauguration.Tracy would have loved being here, especially with the inauguration appropriately coinciding with MLK day. My family lived in Westport in the late 1950s and early 1960s and the Sugarmans and my parents were friends, my brother was in the same class as Tracy’s son Dick, and in 1964 I was fortunate to go Mississippi along with Tracy as a Freedom Summer volunteer. The fact that Tracy was going South was a reassurance to parents and, frankly, a comfort to me. We’ve remained in loose contact over the years. In recent years, I heard him read from two of his books at our local bookstore and marveled at his continuing vigor and joyful spirit. Beside my bed is his latest book, his first novel, and in our living room is a lovely drawing Tracy did of me, at the time of the Mississippi Summer Project. Tracy was an incredible inspiration — for his creativity, his productivity, his deep humanism, and his respectful honoring through his books and drawings of those who had touched his life. As others have said in comments above, his passing leaves a hole in our hearts. But from what I’ve read, he died as he probably would have wished — living fully to the end and then just going to sleep. RIP, dearest Tracy.

  10. He was one of Westport’s treasures…bless him.

  11. One of our greats. His intelligence, artistic sensibilities and humanity will be sorely missed. Bless you, Tracy.

  12. Douglass Davidoff

    Tracy Sugarman should be long remembered. Here was an American liberal who fought Hitler’s forces for the principle of freedom on the beaches of Normandy in 1944 — and 20 years later advocated the expansion of freedom during a danger-filled summer in Mississippi. Here was an artist who conveyed the lessons of these experiences to new generations. And here was a man who loved our town and its nourishment through seven decades as a Westporter’s Westporter. I’m glad I used “My War” as bedtime reading for my kids.

  13. I am so sorry for your loss. It sounds like you will miss him very much. He seems to have been an ideal human being.

    • Elviras loved Mr. Sugarman. He stopped in to say hello to our family at Elviras! He was an amazing man and artist! He will be missed in our town! R.I.P he will be in our prayers!

  14. I met Tracy on several occasions and felt blessed every time. In preparing for a program about Civl Rights with Bill Epridge, who had photographed Cheney’s funeral, I sat down with him at his longtime home and was mesmerized hearing his fascinating stories about how the the twists and turns of current events shaped his life and art. He was a gem of a person and great artist and writer. I watched the inauguration today with him in my thoughts and prayers, knowing “he was there in person for MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech, but typically helping someone in need during the famous words. To his family, our deepest condolences.

  15. Tracy’s passing is very sad but he went out in style which is something he taught me by example. He also taught me how to be a writer, a filmmaker, a social activist incorporating humanitarian ideals into my work. He was a mentor without ever being immodest or puffed up about it. I admired his ability to make friends and be friends with just about everyone, except when he didn’t. There was that one that one fellow we worked with he just didn’t like. I never understood. It was so unTracy. It too was something I learned about being a filmmaker. To get the job done, sometimes you just have to do the work. Tracy did that–always.

  16. Estelle T. Margolis

    Tracy was a miracle of a person! He had the talent, energy and life force of someone who you felt would never slow down and certainly not die! We are all poorer without Tracy in our world.

  17. Bless him- He preached regularly MLK Sunday at Christ and Holy Trinity. Both he and his wife were/are delightful people. He will be well remembered.
    What a gift in this day and age to reach 91 lay down for a nap and move on to what’s next. A peaceful passing for a man so linked to peace

  18. Tracy and his wife June became fast friends with my parents when they all moved here in 1950. My father always spoke highly of his amazing talent in portraying all aspects of the human condition as he encountered it. His work just happens to be in Max’s window this month. I was so glad I got to see him at his book signing at the library last month. He called me a few days later to apologize for not getting to talk to me at the event. I am the one who owed him an apology for not hanging around long enough for the crowd to disperse. That’s the type of person he was. Compassionate, thoughtful, and committed to sharing the best of himself through his art and his writing.