In memoriam: Thomas Schlotterback, 1929-2015

Western Today staff

Thomas Schlotterback was born March 18, 1929, to Everett and Grace (Disney) Schlotterback in Hays, Kansas. He started his next great adventure on Sept. 14, 2015.

Raised in Ellis, Kansas, he was the oldest of four children. Some of his fondest memories include hunting for arrowheads on the Kansas plains and tinkering in the basement on science projects. Starting at 13, he learned to be a printer/linotype operator at the Ellis Review and Hays Daily News and believed that it might be his profession. Just out of high school and much to the surprise of both families, he eloped with his high school sweetheart Rita Marie Plomondon. A year later, he packed up his wife and first daughter Michelle, and went off to college at the University of Kansas. It was here that his life took another path. Science was his passion in high school and he planned to be a theoretical physicist. After a long night running the linotype for the KU press he went to register for physics classes and found very long lines. While waiting, he struck up a conversation with Dwight Burnham, professor of studio art and art history and who happened to man the Art Department registration. One would love to overhear that conversation. Tom became so intrigued that the "rest is history" or more accurately the "rest is art history". Under the mentorship of Burnham he first learned to draw, paint, sculpt and began his lifelong love of art history.

While at KU, he and Rita welcomed two more children, Thomas Mark and Rebecca. Home was a converted World War II army barrack apartment provided for married students. They managed to escape some of the financial challenges of married students because as a linotype operator he earned more than his art professors! He earned his Master of Fine Arts in 1956 and knew he wanted to teach at the university level. He received an offer from the Texas College of Arts and Industries in Kingsville, Texas. Once again he packed up his very supportive wife and three children and off they traveled to southeast Texas.

He spent productive years from 1956 to 1959 honing his skills at teaching drawing, painting and art history. His artwork was widely exhibited in Texas. Teacher pay was low and he supplemented the family income by working at his fallback profession as a linotype operator for the Kingsville Record. Fourth child, Stephanie is a cherished souvenir of Texas. He knew a tenured teaching position required a doctorate and in 1959 he was accepted to the University of Iowa doctoral program. Ironically, in a deja vu, the family moved into a World War II Quonset hut converted for married students. In 1960, the family was blessed with youngest daughter Kimberly Ann. Whew, seven people in a very small duplex. The five kids shared two tiny bedrooms and Tom and Rita shared a sofa bed. Tom worked nights at the University Press and together with Rita's creative family management, made the best of the challenges as he worked towards his doctorate.

In 1965, he accepted an assistant professor position at Western Washington University. He loaded up his Midwest family in a VW Microbus and brought them to one of the most beautiful places on earth and to the home they all dreamed of. He became a full professor in 1972 and was the art department chair from 1973 until 1983. He retired in 1993 as Professor Emeritus. He lived to teach and many former students can attest to his impact on their life regardless of whether they were art majors or not. He wanted all his students to love art as much as he did. He drew, painted and sculpted throughout his teaching career and beyond.

His artwork was exhibited locally and nationally and he won numerous awards. In 2007 he was honored with a retrospect of his work at Fort Hays State College in his birthplace of Hays, Kansas.

His drawings and paintings are provocative, and challenge the viewer to address vital and controversial issues. There is no "easy" in his art. He said, "the greatest fun I have is seeing the look on people's faces when they see my art, you can tell I've hit a button." 

He traveled extensively world-wide teaching at university abroad programs, and upon retirement with Rita, always seeking the art and the history. Another passion was music and singing. His mother introduced him to singing at an early age and Tom had a lovely tenor voice he shared generously. In the mid 60's together with Rita, he performed in the Bellingham Red Carpet Capers and sang for many years in the Sacred Heart Church Choir. At home, he entertained family with spontaneous concerts of show tunes and lovely Irish ballads. His adoring grandchildren remember grandpa sweetly singing to them as he held them in his arms. They also remember the treasure hunts for agates at local beaches and his excitement when they were successful in the hunt. He polished the agates as mementoes of their time together. His quick wit kept us laughing and he loved to debate on any subject but never took himself too seriously.

He will be greatly missed, but we know he is off happily painting, drawing, and hunting for agates and other treasures.

He was preceded in death by his beloved daughter Michelle Barnett (Gary) and brother William Schlotterback. He is survived by his true love and wife of 68 years Rita Marie. Also survived by daughter Michelle's children: granddaughter Kristin Barnett and husband Scott Doenecke (great grandchild Tallinn); granddaughter Brooke Alejos -Barnett and spouse Maria; grandson Brett Barnett and wife Miranda (great grandchildren Annastasia, Zoey and Oliver); son Thomas Mark and wife Kathleen (granddaughter Casey Hillyer and husband Mike, great grandchildren Jake and Emily); daughter Rebecca and husband Kurt Aemmer (granddaughter Sydney); daughter Stephanie Schlotterback (granddaughter Colby Hunt and husband Rob, great grandchildren Bently and Ellie); daughter Kimberly Ann Nakatani and husband Dale (grandchildren Lindsey, Danielle and Christopher); and his sisters Mary Jo Sleazer and Margaret Younger. Thank you to Lynn for her thoughtful care of Tom.

A celebration of life will be held at a later date. Donations in Tom's memory may be made to Whatcom Hospice, the Whatcom Museum of History and Art, or the charity of your choice.

[ Editor's note: This obituary originally was published in The Bellingham Herald. ]

Wednesday, October 7, 2015 - 11:12am