Tom D’Onofrio, wood carver and baby blesser, dies at 73

07/30/2015

Tom D’Onofrio, a Methodist minister-turned-artist who blessed babies at the Bolinas Sun Festival for decades, died last month on July 16. He was 73 years old. 

Tom, who loved the outdoors his entire life, grew up in a church-going family in a New York mountain town. He planned to spend his life as a minister, but a move to California in his 20s changed him, and he became a wood carver who rode his beloved white horse on Bolinas beaches. Yet the dramatic shift did not extinguish his spirituality, his love of telling stories and his devotion to nature.

“He felt at home in nature,” said his 22-year-old daughter, Ciarra. 

Tom—or Terry, as he was known back East, since his father had the same name—grew up in Saranac Lake, a small, snowy town in the Adirondack Mountains. His father worked as a maintenance man at a sanatorium for tuberculosis patients, and his mother at Woolworth’s. 

An early lover of nature, Tom earned enough money as a paper boy to buy a small plot of land on Lake Colby, just a few miles from home, and he built a cabin there. With his friends, he fished, hunted and boated in the woods. Trouble cropped up when it turned out he may have built on state land, but he soon acquired land on the other side of the lake. Townspeople helped him get lumber, and he built a series of cabins on the parcel, which he owned and returned to throughout his life, even after moving to California.

After he graduated from high school, Tom’s passion for the outdoors led him to Paul Smith’s College, where he received a two-year forestry degree. But the ministry also called to him. He considered continuing forestry studies at Syracuse University, but two events appear to have pushed him toward theological studies. His sister, Sharon, said their father survived a serious heart attack, and Tom believed God had helped to save his life.

He also had a mysterious experience in the woods around Lake Saranac. His lifelong friend, Tim Moody, said Tom fainted without explanation. “We were hunting rabbits with one of my dogs,” he said. “Terry passed out in the woods. He was out for a long time. I tramped around for half an hour, and finally came onto him. He was just coming to at that time, face first in three feet of snow. Something about that happening made him decide to go into the ministry.“

Tom studied theology at West Virginia Wesleyan University for two years. There, he met and married his first wife, Barbara. He spent another three years in Ohio studying theology before the couple moved to Berkeley in the mid-1960s, where Tom planned to complete a doctoral degree at the Graduate Theological Seminary.

But living in Berkeley during the tumult of that decade changed Tom profoundly, leading him away from a life as a Methodist minister and, ultimately, to his life in Bolinas.

According to his friend Jim Pelkey, Tom liked to recount his first day of classes at Berkeley. Walking around campus with a pipe in his mouth, he ran into a bare-chested woman and heard a speech by Mario Savio, a founder of the free-speech movement. He gravitated toward Mr. Savio’s call to avoid becoming a “cog” in the machine.

Unburdened by the structures of home and church, he started to open up spiritually and philosophically. “His whole life was structured,” said Tim, including his early family life, work and studies. But in the environment of Berkeley, Tim went on, “His free spirit bore through and came out.”

Tom and Barbara had an infant son, Philip, but they soon separated. Tom worked for the Bay Area Transit Authority digging the tunnel under San Francisco Bay to get by, Jim said.

In his free time, Tom visited Bolinas. He moved there in the late ’60s, giving up the Christian ministry and talking his way into an apprenticeship with woodworker Art Espenet Carpenter. 

Tom knew how to work with wood, but his time with Art was critical for his progression into the arts. “It transformed him from a carpenter to an artist who worked with wood,” said Sharon, who lived in Bolinas in the ’70s. 

The apprenticeship influenced him so deeply that in 1972 he created the Baulines Craft Guild, a program that connected young artisans to mentors and offered them housing. The mediums varied widely—woodwork, metalwork, jewelry making, photography—and people came from across the country to hone their craft with a master.

Tom wrote that the guild was meant to engender self-reliance and self-exploration. “When the individual has the freedom and is strongly influenced by the society to develop his inner creative spirit, a Renaissance of Conscious-ness occurs and ‘free ideas’ flourish…. If, on the other hand, the individual spirit is squashed, then normality and mediocrity prevail. Life becomes boring, repetitive and meaningless.”

Tom stepped away from the organizational part of the guild a few years after it began, needing to make a living after his own apprenticeship ended. Two of his first clients were Grace Slick and Paul Kantner, of the rock group Jefferson Airplane. They commissioned a dining table made of rosewood that was to feature four carved dragons’ heads. 

It didn’t take long to carve the wavy-edged plane of the table and legs with clawed, monstrous feet. But as Tom told it, he suffered severe artist’s block on the dragon heads, and the table sat unfinished for years. He prayed, wrote in his journal, read books and traveled back to Lake Colby, hoping for a breakthrough as he worked on other projects.

But one day in 1976, he rode his horse, an Appaloosa named White Cloud, to R.C.A. Beach. There, he told people, he saw a sea serpent with a head that looked like a dragon. “Suddenly there was this dark figure swimming though the surf,” he told Alex Horvath, who wrote about Tom in 2005 for the San Francisco Chronicle. “It was this big and dark creature—about 40 feet long. We watched and this thing came up and out of the water.”

He soon finished the rosewood table, with a dragon head at one end that looks straight toward the other end, where a tail is curled into a perfect circular spiral. It’s as if the dragon is lying on its back and the plane of the table is its body.

Although he gave up the formal ministry, Tom served a spiritual role in the Bolinas community. He officiated weddings and helped to start the town’s annual Sun Festival, where in later years he donned a feathered headdress and welcomed babies into the community with a blessing—although he always said that he was not blessing the babies, but that the babies were blessing the town. 

His wood carving, one of his daughters said, was a spiritual practice, too. “I think it was really meditative. He wasn’t carving the wood; he was pulling the spirit out of the wood and finding what was in it,” Ciarra said. He became particularly pulled to carving dolphins, with rippled bodies that reflected the flow of the ocean.

Tom married again in the early 1990s. He and Claire Simeone met at a health food store in Mill Valley, where she was working at the time, Claire said, and he invited her to ride horses in Bolinas. They married and honeymooned for a year in Asia, spending time in Nepal, Thailand and Indonesia. On the beach, Claire said, he collected shells and studied them as inspiration for his work, which tended toward sensuous curves and spirals.

The couple had two children: Ciarra, 22, and Colby, 18. Tom was the free-spirited father and Claire was the more practical mother. They divorced in 2002 but remained friends, Claire said.

“He was a child at heart,” Ciarra said. “He would dance around the house with us and eat dessert for dinner.” At night he told them stories of his boyhood (which he recorded, saving hundreds of hours of stories on tape), took them to the beach, attended their basketball games and encouraged them in art projects. During one project, he instructed them to close their eyes and circle a pen around the page, then open their eyes and turn the swirls into people and creatures, the girls recalled. 

He also encouraged them to be self-sufficient. He let Colby, at about 4 years old, light a fire, to the horror of a family friend. “He never belittled us,” Colby said.

Although Tom enjoyed his solitude—whether working or observing the trees and the water—he was always an attentive father, they reminisced.

In the last 10 years of his life, Tom met his last partner, Lydia Correia. The two spent time simply—watching the sunset, playing cards and just being together. “I fell in love with his spirit,” she said.

In Tom’s last years, he fell on tough times, and eventually lost his home in Bolinas. Last September, he went back to Lake Colby, spending about eight months there before returning to Bolinas, where it quickly became apparent that he was ill. He died July 16 of pancreatic cancer. 

Tom, many of those close to him said, wasn’t fearful of death. His strong spirituality carried him through, and he believed in a higher power.

His family and loved ones gathered round him in his last days. Ciarra told him she had seen an owl at the circus camp where she is working this summer; it had landed just five feet away from her. He reassured her that it must have been him. “He said, ‘It doesn’t matter what I become. I’ll be there,’” she said.

 

Tom D’Onofrio is survived by his daughters, Ciarra and Colby; his son, Philip, Philip’s wife, Ileana Lee, and their son, Desmond; his sister, Sharon; and his partner, Lydia. A celebration of his life takes place this Sunday at the Commonweal Gallery, in Bolinas. People are encouraged to bring finger foods and drinks to share; arrival begins at 2 p.m. and the celebration at 2:30.