New London says goodbye to Jim Stidfole
New London — In the end, the House that Stidfole Built wasn't nearly large enough to accommodate all the people who came to mourn his passing and celebrate his life and contributions.
On a drizzly, fog-masked Tuesday evening, folks crammed into both floors and milled outside New London's Hygienic Art building to pay tribute to James "Jim" Stidfole, the omnipresent arts and community activist who died last week at 74.
It was only appropriate that the event take place at the Hygienic, the once-decrepit building resurrected into a downtown arts showplace by a group of committed artistic outsiders led by Stidfole and A. Vincent Scarano. As a multi-faceted gallery and home for resident artists, the Hygienic has expanded to include a tangential Art Park and outdoor performance venue and — as with seemingly countless projects and causes spanning the latitude and longitude of New London County, Stidfole was at the heart of it.
"We all have a Stidfole story. He was one of a kind," said Scarano, longtime president of Hygienic Art, as he stood at a window-front lectern in the building's upstairs gallery delivering a brief eulogy. He described the pair's Hygienic partnership, which had less to do with official titles and relied much more on doing what was necessary.
"Jim never asked why or what was going on," he recalled. "He was just, 'Yeah, let's do it ...' That became his mantra: We can do this."
Scarano recounted a pivotal moment in saving the Hygienic building from demolition when Stidfole volunteered on the spur of the moment to travel to Hartford and plead the case in impromptu fashion before then-attorney general Richard Blumenthal. Laughing, Scarano said, "Jim told them, 'We'll turn it into art galleries and it'll become a destination' and sold them on the plan — and only then he came back and let us know what we were apparently going to do."
Stidfole's widow and longtime collaborator, Sherburne "Sherry" Stidfole, seated to the right of the podium, smiled warmly throughout the evening and graciously acknowledged many call-outs of love.
Those who stood up to share stories spanned the demographics of the community Stidfole loved. New London Mayor Mike Passero spoke, and state senator Paul Formica, R-East Lyme, read a proclamation from the General Assembly.
"You get what you give in this world," Formica said, "and Jim had so much love for Bank Street and New London and all along he knew what it could all be."
Michael Evan, who said he'd been homeless, wanted to express his appreciation to Stidfole for his efforts at the New London Homeless Hospitality Center — where Stidfole made breakfast five days a week for a decade. Local musician Preston Frantz detailed how he and Stidfole bonded not just over music, but because each had lost a son and Stidfole's gently steady and positive friendship was something that could be counted on.
Nick Evento, who founded the Friday Night Folk series at All Souls Unitarian Universalist Congregation in New London, performed "Dear Friend," a song he wrote in Stidfole's memory. And Aimee Spicer, known professionally as DJ Gadget for her work with the WNBA's Connecticut Sun, spoke emotionally about Jim and Sherry Stidfole's constant support and Jim's advice: "Don't let people tell you don't have a real job because your job is in the arts."
Before and after the podium comments, people chatted, signed a memory book, and ate food contributed by area restaurateurs such as Daddy Jacks, Mr. G's, Dev's, Hot Rods, and Muddy Waters.
Everyone seemed to have a favorite Stidfole moment, which — though they came from across his experiences and mentorship as a teacher, grant-writer, journalist, woodworker, dramatist, bookkeeper, volunteer and more — resonated with wit, wonder and appreciation. Artists, musicians, students, business owners, shopkeepers, city residents at-large, professors, theater folks — it was as remarkable a cross-section of New London as one could imagine.
And that they all gathered in Hygienic Art — where in a few weeks the annual Hygienic Art Show takes place and will be dedicated to Stidfole's memory — was about as fine a sendoff as he could have hoped for.
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