Phyllis McGuire: After welcome mat extended, a new friend is made

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“A stranger is just a friend I have yet to meet.”

— Will Rogers American humorist. 1879-1935

WILLIAMSTOWN — I first set eyes on Donald Maguire when he was standing in the doorway of this home in New Hyde Park, N.Y.

“Come in,” he said.

My daughter, Jennifer, who is Maguire’s driver, had arranged for us to meet with him.

I had admired Maguire’s paintings in photos Jennifer had mailed to me, and it was thrilling to be with the artist as I gazed at his original paintings in his studio.

An easel and palette of paints attested to the fact that he is creating a new painting.

“I paint from memory and my imagination,” he said.

I asked Maguire if anyone else in his family was artistically inclined.

“My twin sister played piano,” he replied. “She surprised us by playing ‘Happy Birthday’ at the age of 4.

“When I started school, the nuns — I went to a Catholic school — noticed that I did not draw stick figures as the other children did. I drew three-dimensional figures with noses, ears, fingers.”

But, school was difficult for Maguire.

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“I was dyslexic. It was a very bad thing then.

They thought anyone with that [disorder] was just dumb,” said the octogenarian.

Fortunately, his learning problem “cleared” when he was 11. Letters, words and numbers no longer seemed jumbled to him.

“I have loved to read ever since then,” said Maguire. “A good book is a joy.”

After graduating from elementary school, Maguire moved on to an art school in New York City, but his father disapproved.

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“He wanted me to do man’s work. He was proud of my brother, who was a carpenter.

My father said, ‘You can’t get married and support a family on that art stuff.’ It was discouraging.”

Nonetheless, Maguire persisted and proved his father wrong.

A framed New York Times front-page story in Maguire’s home, however, is not about him as an artist who won awards for his paintings and taught and mentored fledgling artists, but as a devoted husband.

Dated March 2, 1992, the article “Choosing to Die at Home: Dignity Has Its Burdens” was published when discussions were underway about the feasibility of terminally ill patients being cared for at home in their final days, rather than in a hospital.

“Kay wanted to die at home,” said Maguire, referring to his wife, who, after eight years of living with breast cancer and frequently being hospitalized, knew that death was near.

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So, Maguire took care of his wife at home until she breathed her last.

“Kay was holding my hand and our 18-year-old daughter’s hand when she gave a deep sigh and then was gone,” he said. “No tubes. No machines. Just us and her, the way we wanted.”

Maguire mentioned that because of the newspaper article, he experienced firsthand the power of the press. “My phone rang constantly, with people calling from all over the country.”

Later in Jennifer’s and my visit with Maguire, he shared some lighthearted stories.

“My parents, immigrants from the old country, would roll up the rug and give weekly parties. Everyone who came would entertain — singing, dancing, reciting poems or playing a musical instrument,” Maguire said. “They were simple folk and would come in overalls and house dresses, except for Aunt Bridget, who wore a frock, a hat with a veil and white gloves. She worked for and lived with rich people on Fifth Avenue and put on airs.”

Aunt Bridget was sipping brandy, which father bought especially for her, when one of the young boys asked, “Are you going to do your tricks for us?”

“What makes you think I do tricks?” Aunt Bridget said.

“My father says you drink like a fish.”

Maguire’s eyes sparkled as Jennifer and I reacted to such stories.

“I like to make people smile,” said the artist I now know as my friend Don.

Phyllis McGuire writes from her home in Williamstown.


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