His newspaper friends used to joke that he’d live to dance on all their graves, and he almost did.
Boise art icon John Collias, one of my oldest friends in more ways than one, was a few months short of 99 when he died Wednesday night.
He was one of the most vibrant, most “alive” people you could hope to meet. He grew up in a Greek-American family, emphasis on Greek. He was fluent in the language; like many Greeks, he had strong opinions, loudly voiced. He peppered his conversations with frequent, emphatic gestures, was fiercely proud of his family and his work, and was passionate about nearly everything — from his artwork to the lunch specials at his favorite restaurant.
We met at an Idaho Press Club New Year’s Eve party. The new Statesman reporter in Canyon County, I’d been with the newspaper for all of six weeks. The press club had asked him to do watercolors of some of the journalists who would be attending — this one included — to decorate the ballroom for the party. I was chatting with another reporter when someone grabbed my arm, spun me around and studied my face.
“You don’t have blue eyes!” he said, practically shouting.
“Who are you?” I asked.
He identified himself as the artist who had done the painting of me.
“All I had to work from was a black and white photo,” he said. “They told me you had blue eyes.”
That was the unlikely beginning of a friendship that lasted 46 years.
We were from different generations, but it didn’t matter. Soon we were having regular lunches at one of his favorite hangouts, La Fiesta on Boise Avenue. He called it “Hank and Marie’s,” the names of its owners. We must have had a hundred lunches there — by ourselves, with other Statesman friends, and once with someone famous.
“TIM!” he shouted one day over the lunch special, stabbing the air with a pointed finger. “This food is so good we need to bring Bill Kay here.”
Kay, producer of the Shrine Circus that came to Boise every summer for nearly 30 years, was a connoisseur of restaurants from Boston to San Francisco. The next time he came to town, we took him and a friend of his to Hank and Marie’s. The friend was Karl Wallenda, star of the famed Flying Wallendas. It was hard to say who was the most colorful character — Kay, the matchless storyteller; Wallenda, the high-wire artist; or Collias, the true artist, himself an adroit storyteller.
One of my favorite Collias stories was about the time he went out for football at Ohio State University. His only play was catching a kickoff. The ensuing tackle rendered him unconscious. Later, in the locker room trying to decide whether to quit the team, he noticed a player doing something to his eye.
“Excuse me,” he asked. “What are you doing there?”
“Putting in my glass eye.”
“Did you lose your eye playing football?”
“Thank you. You just made up my mind for me.”
The Ohio State washout was born in Fort Wayne, Ind., went to art school and worked in Chicago, and settled in Boise because it was home to the love of his life. He came to Boise by train during World War II with his brother Nick, both newly minted army recruits. Sick when they arrived, he looked down at the city from the depot and said, “Nick, what the hell did we ever do to deserve a place like this?”
It was a statement he would regret. While stationed at Gowen Field, he met Lily Kepros and was instantly smitten. She was six years younger, the daughter of a protective, old-school Greek who was less than enamored of the soldier who had taken a shine to his daughter. The soldier had to ask repeatedly for permission to date her.
That was the beginning of a storybook romance. By the time the Army sent him to England, he had won her heart, if not her father’s. He had a flower sent to her every month, and he mailed her a letter every day.
Every single day, until he came home from the war.
They were married for 70 years.
That was more than enough time for him to become a Boise institution. He did hundreds of drawings, mainly portraits, for the Statesman. He painted miners and sheepherders, governors and senators. He painted “the big three” of corporate Idaho: Harry Morrison, J.R. Simplot and Joe Albertson. He designed the Idaho Bicentennial Medal. His drawing of a Bronco graced the 50-yard line at Albertsons Stadium. His drawings and paintings are in public buildings and private homes throughout the state.
He loved fine portraiture, the work of Picasso, Rembrandt and El Greco; blues and big-band music; pastries from Pastry Perfection; Smoky Davis’ pepper-bacon burgers; city bus rides; the Boise State Broncos; and the Chicago Cubs.
Most of all, he loved people. Borderline dangerous behind the wheel, he walked everywhere, meeting people on the street, chatting them up, having coffee or lunch with them. He was the quintessential man about town.
Occasionally, he accompanied me on my trips to interview column subjects. On one of them, he found a subject.
“STOP!” he said, finger stabbing the air.
It was a deciduous tree, its autumn colors vibrant against an evergreen forest. His painting of it, reproduced in a coffee-table book of his work, is striking.
He was his own harshest critic. If he didn’t think a drawing or painting was good enough, even if he’d spent months on it, he scrapped it and started over. Reminiscing over the paintings in his coffee-table book last week — portraits, landscapes, abstracts, clowns, cowboys, Christmas cards — I was reminded once again of just how good he was.
“TIM! I’m as good as (he would name a famous artist). If I’d lived in New York, I’d have made a lot of money. I might have been famous. But I don’t have any regrets. I can’t say enough good things about Boise. The people of Boise couldn’t have been better to me.”
How many times did he tell me that? He knew he might have made a name for himself in a big city, and I think it haunted him that he didn’t try. But he came to love the city that the sick soldier of his youth disparaged from the train station, and his gratitude to those who helped him make a name for himself in his adopted home was boundless.
The last time I saw him was Tuesday, the day before he died. He was barely conscious. It was hard to know whether he even recognized me. For lack of anything better to say, I told him we’d have lunch in a better place one day with Hank and Marie. He opened his eyes, gestured weakly and mumbled something that sounded like a very faint version of “TIM!”
The call telling me that he was gone was what prompted me to reach for the coffee-table book. It had been several years since I’d looked at it, and I’d either forgotten or never noticed the inscription he’d written on the first page:
“Tim, to my very best friend for many years. — John G. Collias.”
That was when the tears came — not just for his passing, but for the passing of a once-in-a-lifetime friendship.
Tim Woodward’s column is posted on woodwardblog.com the Monday following publication. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.