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Norman Rockwell Connection

From Stephentown Genealogy

©2008 Norman Rockwell Museum. All rights reserved. 9 Glendale Road, Route 183 Stockbridge, Massachusetts 01262

Written by Tina Ordone

I was going through my mother's old pictures recently, and came across a couple of pictures from a wedding, dated November 4, 1942. The date was the only thing printed on the back of the photos and it was in my mother's handwriting. I recognized the lady in the picture as my mother's cousin, Blanche Sweener, daughter of Uncle Ulysses and Aunt Rita. I don't remember ever meeting her, though I am sure she saw me as a baby. Her handsome husband was John Toolan, and I never knew him either. During our trip to New York in October, 2006, I showed the photos to my Uncle Pete (Nelson Sweener) and he told me a very interesting story and one I had never heard before. He said that John Toolan had been the subject of a Norman Rockwell painting! I had no idea, but I wanted to know as much about it as I could.

When I got home, I decided to contact the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, and ask them for information. Below is what they wrote back. After that you will find some family recollections from John and Blanche's nieces, people who knew them well.

Blanche grew up in Stephentown, the daughter of Ulysses and Rita Sweener.



Dear Tina,

Below is the exhibition label I wrote for the painting which is here on loan from Verizon. It has, I think, the information you're looking for. Please note that this text can't be reproduced or published without the consent of the museum since it is copyrighted. Hope this is helpful. Sincerely, Linda Szekely Pero Curator of Norman Rockwell Collections Norman Rockwell Museum 9 Glendale Road Stockbridge, MA 01262 413-298-4100 ext. 212

The Lineman 1948 Norman Rockwell (1894-1978) Oil on canvas

"In the fall of 1947, Norman Rockwell drove around the countryside near his Vermont home hoping to spot a telephone lineman at work. Having accepted a commission to illustrate a lineman for American Telephone & Telegraph Company, he imagined the type of man he wanted to pose for his picture. His search ended when he spotted John Toolan digging and setting telephone poles in nearby Cheshire, Massachusetts. Toolan went to Rockwell's studio where he posed on a pole, arranged for by AT&T, which was fitted with cables and anchored to nearby trees. Toolan then lashed cables for several hours while photographs were taken. The photos were sent to AT&T, where engineers checked them for technical accuracy. Four months later, Rockwell sent his preliminary drawing and color study for approval. Eleven changes were required, most of them technical, before Rockwell could proceed with this final oil painting.

Although the illustration would promote the image of AT&T, its effect was meant to be inspirational rather than commercial. In a letter to Rockwell from the ad agency handling the account, it was suggested to Rockwell that he portray the lineman in the act of restoring service after a catastrophe such as the hurricanes of then recent memory. "The work of the linemen for the Telephone Company," said the account representative, "is filled with opportunities for personal sacrifices and acts which stem only from devotion to national welfare, so that it seems a fitting work to honor by such a painting."

Painting for AT&T advertisement Collection of Verizon

Permission to use this information was granted by Ms. Pero as follows:

I think it would be okay as long as you include the copyright notice which would be:

©2006 Norman Rockwell Museum. All rights reserved.

Thanks, Linda Pero Note from Tina: I asked my cousin, Joanna Jackson, who is Blanche's niece, for some recollections of John Toolan. She not only sent hers but she asked her sister, Mickey Atwater, to send hers as well. The following came from Mickey and Joanna:

I sent both my sisters an email and asked them what they remembered about Uncle Jack and this is what Micky sent back to me.

From Mickey:

Uncle Jack was my God Father! He and Aunt Blanche would come over on week-ends and for several years the guys would play cards. I remember Dad playing poker with him and his brothers often in the early years. You're right Uncle Jack was always kind of quiet and stayed in the background and smiled a lot. He seemed to be a very gentle man even though he was quite large in stature. I do know he didn't like to travel. He was a homebody.

From Joanna:

When my son was 7 months old he had a staff infection his temp was 106 Aunt Blanche was the head nurse and she stayed with me the whole time. I didn't want to leave the hospital and she had Uncle Jack come pick me up from the hospital so I could take a shower he made me dinner and he told me to use the phone and I could call anywhere and talk to anyone. I ended up falling a sleep for a few hours then he woke me up took me back to the hospital and Aunt Blanche was still with my son. She never left his side.

From what I remember he was a family man he and Aunt Blanche were always together even when we went to there house. I remember visiting Uncle Jack after Aunt Blanche passed on He was sitting in front of the TV watching Football and smiling all the time we were there. I think Norman Rockwell gave Aunt Blanche and Uncle Jack the first copy of the picture he painted and he signed it and put a special note on it for Uncle Jack. Where it is now I am not sure. Love Joanna John J. Tollan was born January 10, 1919 in Massachusetts; he died June 1, 1983 in Pittsfield, Mass. Blanche Marie Sweener was born September 9, 1923 in Stephentown and died November 22, 1879 in Pittsfield, Mass. They had two daughters, Jacqueline born in 1943 and Theresa born in 1948. Norman Rockwell Treasure Comes Home: Verizon Donates Iconic $2 Million Painting ‘The Lineman’ to Norman Rockwell Museum Posted on March 12, 2008

STOCKBRIDGE, Mass. — The image of a telephone lineman -- strong, focused and dedicated to his craft -- has long been a symbol for communications workers and every person who works with his or her hands. Such a lineman was immortalized in a painting by Norman Rockwell in 1948.

That painting, called “The Lineman,” was donated March 12 by Verizon to the Norman Rockwell Museum here.

The oil-on-canvas painting -- 57 inches by 42 and one-eighth inches and recently appraised at more than $2 million, according to Verizon officials -- was officially presented to Museum Director and Chief Executive Officer Laurie Norton Moffatt today by Donna Cupelo, Verizon region president of Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

“This is a sentimental but proud day for us,” Cupelo said at the donation ceremony at the museum. “We in the Verizon family loved this painting and enjoyed it for many, many years; it perfectly symbolizes our heritage and our commitment to our customers. At the same time, we recognize that its rightful place is with the museum so that it can be enjoyed by everyone.”

Said Moffatt, “Thanks to Verizon’s generosity, the public will be able to enjoy this magnificent painting forever. “The Lineman” joins Norman Rockwell Museum’s distinguished collection of Rockwell’s work that tells the story of America. The acquisition of this iconic painting deeply enriches the museum’s collection of American illustration art, comprising the world’s largest collection of Norman Rockwell art. We are honored to be the guardian of this American treasure, and to carry forward the colorful story of its creation.”

Rockwell created “The Lineman” for an advertisement for New England Telephone, a predecessor company of Verizon. The painting had been on loan to the museum since 2006 from the Verizon collection of art work.

History in the Making When Rockwell accepted the commission to illustrate a lineman, he imagined the type of man he wanted to pose for his picture. In the fall of 1947, Rockwell drove around the countryside near his Arlington, Vt., home and through western Massachusetts, looking for telephone linemen at work and searching for a lineman with the build and face that Rockwell had envisioned. His search ended when he spotted New England Telephone employee and Lenox, Mass., resident, the late John Toolan, digging and setting telephone poles with a crew in Cheshire, Mass., near the Vermont border.

Later the same day, Toolan went to Rockwell’s studio in Vermont (Rockwell later moved to Stockbridge), where Rockwell had him pose outdoors on a pole fitted with cables and anchored to nearby trees. Toolan then lashed cables for several hours while photographs were taken. The photos were sent to New England Telephone, where engineers checked them for technical accuracy. Four months later, Rockwell sent his preliminary drawing and color study to the company for approval. Eleven changes were required, most of them technical, before Rockwell could proceed with this final oil painting.

Copies of the painting appeared nationally as an ad in Life magazine. Its appearance generated thousands of reprint requests from the public and telephone company employees. More than 100,000 poster-sized color prints were sent throughout the country.

Quoted in a 1980 article in a New England Telephone employee magazine, Toolan said, “I remember when the ad first appeared in the magazine…boy did I get kidded a lot by my friends and co-workers. They said they’d never known such a famous person before and thought I was quite a celebrity. Best of all, though, they thought I was still a regular guy, too.” Although the illustration was created for an advertisement, its effect was meant to be inspirational rather than commercial. In the original letter to Rockwell from the ad agency handling the account, it was suggested that he portray the lineman in the act of restoring service after a catastrophic event, such as a hurricane. “The work of the linemen for the telephone company,” said the letter, “is filled with opportunities for personal sacrifices and acts which stem only from devotion to national welfare, so that it seems a fitting work to honor by such a painting.”

This almost life-size painting commands viewers’ attention both through its size and by its straightforward message about the importance and dignity of manual work in the performance of essential service. The painting joins a collection of Rockwell artwork at the Norman Rockwell Museum, consisting of similar works in which the artist devoted his entire canvas to a single compelling figure, such as Tyrone Power in a movie poster for “The Razor’s Edge” and Charles Dickens’ coachman for a 1939 Saturday Evening Post cover.