It’s back to school time. But this is a story about what happened to a child who once skipped school. Because of the fortuitous outcome for the child involved, truant officers might not be pleased with it, even though it’s still one worth telling.

It begins with Donald Thayer.

In 1958, he and his wife Marilyn move from Rome, N.Y., to Farmington, where Donald and Marilyn open an art studio. Marilyn also assumes an art teaching position in the local school system.

Thayer — who would later move to Portland and become widely known for such works as the almost life-sized Portland Expo mural of Portland’s Union Station, his collaboration in the trompe l’oeil in the Old Port, and his rendition of courtroom scenes for Portland television stations in high profile criminal trials — was  referred to Helen Hanscom’s Browsing Shop in Farmington as a potential subject.

As Thayer recently recalled, “I found the shop just as rustic inside as out, dimly-lit, creaking floor boards, stacked with antique items from kitchenware to heating stoves. I knew right away that it was the kind of scene I wanted to make into a painting.”

Adding to the ambience was the store’s owner, Helen Hanscom, then a 61-year-old who was, “Doughty in manner and dress, completely in keeping with the establishment,” Thayer observed.

A 10-year-old child sitting on a bench in front of the shop also captured Thayer’s attention.

The result was one of Thayer’s most outstanding works, The Browsing Shop, which was featured in the classic “Maine Through the Eyes of her Artists.”

The child, whose identity until recently had long remained a mystery, was Richard Knox.

Knox, now 65, still recalls that fall day in 1959 when he posed for the painting. It’s a day he skipped school, not because he had any foreknowledge of being asked to pose for what would become an iconic work of art, but because he wanted to spend time at Mrs. Hanscom’s store.

Clad in only a T-shirt when he first showed up that day, Helen gave him the heavy, somewhat over-sized gray colored shirt he dons in the painting.

Knox recalls that he was but one of many children who worked for Hanscom, also recalling, “There’s just nothing that people wouldn’t do for the lady.”

He recalled Hanscom’s shop to be a “treasure house” because “she saved everything.”

Several others who spent time with Hanscom also recalled for this columnist the wide range of demographics which was the basis for her following. They ranged from Manhattan’s Greenwich Village artists, multimillionaire tourists, to some of the more down and out locals, those — who in the jargon of a later generation — might be referred to as “street people.”

Despite having played hooky the day he posed for the painting, Knox returns to his fifth grade classroom at West Farmington’s Elementary School. (It’s now an Elks Club.)

Four years go by. It’s 1963, the fall of the Kennedy assassination. Knox, now 14, is a freshman at Farmington High School and develops an interest in painting. His passion is so strong that his art teacher, Marilyn Thayer, wife of the artist who had portrayed him four years earlier, urges Richard to visit her husband.

Richard mounts his bicycle and makes the 3-mile trek to the Thayer family’s red barn studio. Somewhat surprisingly, Richard had not seen the painting for which he had posed and had not recalled Donald as the same artist. Donald likewise himself does not recognize Richard as the child depicted in it.

Nevertheless, the pair strike up a close mentor-protege relationship. Painting becomes Richard’s passion. By the time of his graduation from high school he is sometimes referred to by his peers with nicknames such as “Rembrandt,” “Leonardo” and “Angelo.”

Knox’s aspirations to attend art school are stymied by austere family finances. He is, after all, one of 15 children, his father a mill hand in a small sawmill who moonlights running a taxi-cab service.

Knox instead joins the Navy and is soon sent to Vietnam.

After 18 months overseas and on the return voyage, his ship in 1969, the year America lands a man on the moon, puts into port in Virginia. During a four-day leave he visits the observatory atop the Washington Monument. An inner voice suddenly exhorts him to turn around. He then spies an 18-year-old lady who had tripped and hit the railing with her mid-section. Just as she is about to topple to her death more than 500 feet below, he reaches out and rescues her, pulling a ligament in his own right arm in the process.

The teenager whose life he saves turns out to be none other than the daughter of the mayor of Norfolk, Va. Besides being summoned to a testimonial in Norfolk, the Navy also awards him the bronze star for his quick-thinking heroism.

Back home, Richard returns to West Farmington. Differences soon erupt between himself and his father. The cleavage becomes so irreconcilable that, by 1971, Richard determines to leave the area. It doesn’t really matter where he goes. He just wants to be away from his father. He picks up a dart and aims it at a wall map of Maine, vowing to choose as his next home the place where the dart lands on the map.

It lands on Searsport, a coastal community next to Belfast. He’s been there ever since. Working by day at Belfast poultry plants, Knox has also continued his interest in art, some 500 paintings to his credit in the time since he has been there. Over 200 of them have been privately commissioned. Many of them are landscape works, depicting scenes from his Farmington childhood. Others are of children the same age he was when he posed for Thayer’s painting.

A resourceful raconteur, Knox in recent years has become a regular host of radio programs in the Ellsworth area.

He continues to think of Thayer and the guidance he provided him as a teenager, but by last year had assumed that Thayer — whose family left the Farmington area in the late 1960s — was deceased.

At the time the Farmington Historical Society acquired the painting from Thayer last fall, this columnist set out on a mission to identify the child in the painting. Eventually, a lead from one of Knox’s high school classmates, Cathy Ibarguen, led to Knox.

When reached by this columnist in November, Knox was elated to find that Thayer himself was still not only alive at 90, but still active in both painting and writing daily, now in Edgewater, Fla.

Their reunion after nearly 50 years ensued in early August of this year. The occasion was a presentation before nearly a hundred persons of both their works of art at an event sponsored by the Farmington Historical Society. It was the first time Knox had actually seen the painting in person.

Knox does not regret the day in 1959 he took off from school one of many days he had done the same. Unscripted adventures have been a milestone of his life. Asked occasionally what school he did attend, he occasionally replies, using his last name preceded by a nickname, “Hard Knox.”

Helen Hanscom, who died in 1964 at the age of 65, would herself, no doubt, also be proud.

Though most children in Maine this fall will resume their education with regular attendance, a few will, like Richard Knox, go AWOL. Some of them will be engaged in misadventures they will likely regret. Very few, however, will have the fortune of being such a part of cultural history as Knox was on that fall day in 1959.

Paul H. Mills, is a Farmington attorney well known for his analyses and historical understanding of public affairs in Maine. He can be reached by e-mail: [email protected]


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