A good death

barneyI remember getting the phone call in my classroom from my wife Jill;  “Martin, we need to go to the hospital.  Your dad has taken a turn for the worse.  We drove to the hospital as my brain started to realize that this was probably the start of the end.  My father had been diagnosed with lung cancer.

After we got to the hospital we were directed to a room.  I walked into the room and walked out.  Jill asked what I was doing…….”They must have directed us to the wrong room, that’s not my father,” I said.

My wife turned me around and leaned in and said, “No Martin, that’s him.  Maybe this has happened to some of you.  Even though I intellectually knew my father was an ill  man, in my mind’s eye he was still the man in this picture…full of piss and vinegar and at the height of his creative prowess.  It’s funny how the mind works.

I count myself thankful that I decided to spend the night with him in the hospital.  I mainly just sat next to his bed and watched him labor to breath all the while being hooked up to oxygen.  Every once in a while he would come to and we would talk.  I knew that my father would probably never leave the hospital. I had  been carrying a weight on my shoulders for a couple of years and I knew that it was……anger.  For various reasons toward the end of my father’s life, my father and I had a very strained relationship.  I can not even remember the last conversation we had until those last few days in the hospital.  But sometime around 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning I remember looking at him and thinking, he is old, frail, ill, and on his death bed and this anger that I’ve been carrying around is not doing me or anyone who loved me any good.  It was then that I looked at him as he slept and said, “I forgive you.”

To forgive others is a gift to yourself.  The weight of that anger I had felt just disappeared. 

A couple of days later, August 25, 1997 at 3:15 pm I was holding my father’s hand when he passed away.  It was a memory I’ll hold dear all of my life.   He was surrounded by his family and wasn’t in any pain due to the morphine drip that slowly suppressed his breathing until his lungs finally succumbed.  I knew exactly when it happened.  As I was holding his hand, I experienced what felt like a electrical surge go right through me.

I looked down and my watch and it was frozen at 3:15.  I turned to my mother and said, “dad’s just passed”.  We called his nurse and sure enough dad was gone.

I remember thinking that my father had a good death.

Below is the speech I gave at his memorial service at the Dallas Museum of Art.

My mother Barbara, my sister Gina, my brother Tony and I would like to say thank you for coming today to honor the memory of Barney Delabano.

Rick Brettell… John Lundsfurd, I want to thank you for your insights into Barney Delabano the man. He admired you both as scholars and cherished your friendships.

And mom … Thank you for asking me to speak about dad. I do this with great pride.

Margaret Ann Cullum told my Mother the other day that she supposed that Barney and Esther Houseman were now in the process of reinstalling Heaven.

Those who knew my father were quite aware that he was not a religious man. But as my mother told me, you might not have thought it if you ever heard him singing at the top of his lungs with his Mahalia Jackson CD “His eye are on the Sparrow” blaring in his studio.

My father was a very complex man. Earlier this week Gina and I were talking about Dad and concluded that Dad could be both difficult and wondrous. And nothing could be closer to the truth.

Sometime this past year, I asked my father where it was that he experienced art for the first time. He proceeded to tell me this wonderful story of when he had gone to the Denison Public Library. There he discovered the Saturday Evening Post.Having never been exposed to art, it must have come as a revelation to him. He told me that he was so fascinated by the Norman Rockwall covers that on future trips to the library he took along a razor blade to cut the covers off, and slipped them into his shirt to make his getaway.

Part of his family’s immense pride in Barney stem from the fact that he was truly a self made man. Although my father would have been the first to acknowledge all those who influenced him and helped him along the way.

I love his story of going to work in the Katy railroad yards in Denison. Katy railroad is where his father worked. He told me that as he looked out over the rail yard in the snowing and freezing cold, he concluded that there had to be more to life.

At the age of sixteen, with 400 dollars in his pocket, he moved to Dallas all by himself. He got a job at a cleaners and lived in someone’s garage apartment. Once here in Dallas he enrolled in Miss Vivian Aunspaugh’s Art School. Later he studied with and became friends with pivotal and important artist from the era and eventually exhibited with them.

It was important to my father that I understood that there was all this wealth of history that had gone on before me here in Dallas. People like Charley Bowling, Jerry Bywaters, Otis and Velma Dozier and many more wonderful and talented people who had built bridges for future generations of artists, including myself.

This is from an entry in one of my father’s sketch books from the mid-1940’s.

“Tonight I began thinking of Miss Aunspaugh. Somehow I think my best training was from her. Not so much from her school – as her herself. A gentle old sweet lady who somehow knows of greatness- she could dig up models of marvelous qualities – clean wholesome faces”.

Looking through my father’s work, I believe my father sought that same sort of simplicity in his own artwork. He found those faces in his wife, his four children, grandson and among friends. He painted them all with a quiet dignity.

He also loved to paint simple things like paper sacks, and flowers, fruit, and boards C-clamped to stools with a swath of brocade fabric in the background. He could take all these casual objects and compose them together beautifully, concisely and with an easy natural flair.

His work as an artist influenced his design work for the museum. It’s very apparent from looking through his early sketchbooks he always had an interest in design and installation.

Before joining the museum in 1958 my father taught art in the the Dallas Independent School District, first in elementary art education, then he moved on to junior high and then to high school. There he shared his own love of art to many who passed through his classroom.

His teaching didn’t end with joining the museum. It could be argued that his installations were always like teaching tools. As beautiful as the installation might be, first and foremost was the art. He wanted the art to be understood and appreciated. He wanted the artist who created the art to be understood and appreciated and he wanted the culture that created the artist to be understood and appreciated as well. His installations always succeeded in doing this.

There were times he taught art history at SMU at night and life drawing at El Centro. He did so because he loved to teach, but it was also to bring in needed extra income for his family.

Even though he never did stop painting, after his retirement he turned back to painting with renewed passion. I thought he did some of his best painting during this time.

Barney Delabano lived a full and fascinating life and with that his Life comes full circle. My father passed surrounded by his family and blessedly went easily.

He left behind a grand legacy as accomplished artist, teacher noted museum designer, and beloved husband, father and grandfather. We will miss him. Thank you.

Martin Delabano

Dallas Museum of Art, September 12, 1997



9 thoughts on “A good death

  1. Martin,
    I was very touched by your story of your a Father. What a loving tribute – I can see that many of the qualities that your students, cohorts, and friends treasure in you were also part of who he was. Two fine, creative and talented men. Thank you for sharing this.
    awith love and appreciation,


  2. It only takes a spark…think of the thousands and thousands of lives the Delabanos have enriched because one young man wanted more in life. I’m grateful.


  3. Martin, thank you for sharing your loving and honest tribute to your wonderful father. He was so much more than just an art teacher to my husband, Pat and I. He was a mentor and a friend. His class was always the highlight of my day. I still paint to this day and remember little things he taught us. We went to the museum many years later. At least 25 or so. We were walking up the stairs toward his office and my husband laughed at something. Barney, ( Mr. D to us) came out and said “That has to be Pat McCutchin! I would know that laugh anywhere!” He looked the same except for the head of white hair. By the way, Pat has a head of white hair now. God bless you and your family.


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