LEA, THOMAS CALLOWAY (1907~2001) Thomas Calloway "Tom" Lea, III, artist and author, was born in El Paso, Texas on July 11, 1907, to Thomas Calloway "Tom" Lea, Jr., attorney and Mayor of El Paso, and Zola May Utt. Lea graduated from El Paso High School in 1924 and enrolled at the Art Institute of Chicago, where he studied under Chicago muralist John Norton. While studying at the Institute, Lea met and married fellow student, Nancy Jean Taylor.
After leaving the Institute in 1926, Lea apprenticed under John Norton and worked as a graphic artist until 1932. It was during this time that he and Nancy visited Italy, where they studied the techniques of Renaissance wall painting. By 1933, the Leas moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he completed several murals and paintings for the Works Progress Administration. In 1935, prior to Texas' centennial celebration, he painted two murals for the Hall of State at the State Fair Grounds in Dallas.
In 1936, after Nancy's death, Lea returned to El Paso and became acquainted with printer Carl Hertzog and J. Frank Dobie, both of whom he developed friendships with. Through his friendship with Dobie, Lea was asked to illustrate his newest book, Apache Gold and Yaqui Silver. It was during this time that Lea's notoriety as a muralist was growing. He works from this time period can be seen throughout the United States, including the Ben Franklin Post Office in Washington, D. C., but the majority of his early murals are in west Texas and southern New Mexico.
In 1938, Lea met Sarah Dighton Beane, who happened to be visiting mutual friends in El Paso. Lea asked her to marry him thirty-six hours after they met. Sarah said yes and they were married for sixth-three years.
Lea's career in the late 1930s and early 1940s continued to grow. He collaborated with Dobie on his book, The Longhorns, and in 1940, was asked by Life magazine to be an artist-correspondent. His first assignment was to visit various military bases and describe troop training in anticipation of possible American involvement in World War II.
After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Lea's involvement with Life was expanded. Between 1941 and 1945, Life, featured Lea s paintings in ten different issues. His paintings ranged from portraits of notable World War II figures, like Chinese Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek and U. S. Generals Jimmy Doolittle and Claire Chennault, to graphic images, like the Marines landing on Peleliu Island.
After the war, Lea returned to El Paso and collaborated with friend Carl Hertzog on A Calendar of Twelve Travelers Through the Pass of the North, which was a collection of ink drawings and portraits of conquistadors, frontiersmen and settlers who traveled through the pass of the north over a three-hundred year period.
This was followed by another assignment from Life magazine, where Lea was asked to research and illustrate the historical development of the beef cattle industry in the new world. While researching in Mexico, Lea became intrigued with bull fighting, which led him to produce two different works on the topic, an illustrated pamphlet, A Bullfight Manual for Spectators, and his first novel, The Brave Bulls.
The Brave Bulls went on to become a bestseller and was made into a motion picture starring Mel Ferrar and Anthony Quinn. Lea s second novel, The Wonderful Country, was also critically acclaimed and was also made into a movie, starring Robert Mitchem.
As his career as a Texas artist and author continued to grow, Lea, in 1954, painted a mural on the new library as a gift to the people of El Paso. This was followed by a special invitation by the Kleberg family to write and illustrate a history of the King Ranch. Lea s two-volume work was published in 1957, and, like his other books, became highly popular.
Throughout the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, Lea wrote two more novels, Primal Yoke and The Hands of Cantu and was commissioned to paint several portraits, including that of long-time friend J. Frank Dobie, former Speaker of the U. S. House of Representatives Sam Rayburn, and Federal Judge R. E. Thomason. Lea's portrait of Rayburn was commissioned for the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington, D. C. and hangs in the main entrance. Some of Lea's other paintings can be found across the U. S., including the Oval Office, the Texas State Capitol, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
Age and poor eyesight curtailed Lea's career in his later life, but his paintings and published works have withstood the test of time, as has his reputation. He was honored as one of Texas' leading artists and writers and received the Colonel John Thomason Award for excellence in art in depicting the Marine Corps. He was also given a lifetime achievement award by The Texas Institute of Letters and was named a Fellow of the Texas State Historical Association. He was also honored by the El Paso Museum of Art, when they dedicated the Tom Lea Gallery.
Thomas Calloway Lea, III passed away on January 29, 2001, and was buried in El Paso. His family, friends, and fans placed a cenotaph, or memorial marker, in his honor in the Texas State Cemetery, where his name will now be remembered with his good friends, colleagues, and contemporaries like J. Frank Dobie, Walter Prescott Webb, Fred Gipson, and Buck Schiwetz.
On Saturday, May 14, 2005, about 50 of Lea's friends and family attended a special ceremony at the Texas State Cemetery to commemorate the man, his legendary contributions to Texas and the United States, and dedicate a special cenotaph, or memorial marker that was erected in his honor.
Information provided by: Lea family friend, Stephen W. Pogson.