Living Large in Northeast Ohio
March 5, 2016
By: Mark G. Mangie
(Ed. Note - The Butler Institute of American Art is the largest museum in the United States dedicated solely to American Art and Artists. It houses numerous American Masterpieces painted by such artists as Norman Rockwell, Winslow Homer, Singer Sargent, and many others. Lou Zona is its long time Director and has built the Butler into a museum of national and international repute. Born in New Castle, PA., he shows the strength, character and intellect of those from the Mahoning Valley.)
Mark: Lou…thank you for sitting and talking to us. My family has known you a very long time, especially my Mom and Dad.
Lou: Wonderful people.
Mark: So this is going to be kind of fun to find out how somebody gets to be the director of a wonderful museum like the Butler...what path you took to get from there to here. Let’s start with where you are from.
Lou: I was born and raised in New Castle. My dad was a barber.
Mark: Really? My father-in-law was a barber.
Lou: He had an eighth grade education my mother had a fourth grade education.
Mark: I didn’t think anyone was originally from New Castle…just a joke!!! It was and continues to be a major ethnic enclave.
Lou: Both of my parents were born in New Castle. My grandparents were from Italy.
Mark: Do you know what part?
Lou: Southern Italy. Lower in the boot, I've never been to that part of Italy. Lots of poor people. So my grandparents came here for a better life. My parents struggled. There were five of us although one of my sisters died in infancy. I was the youngest of the remaining two sisters and a brother. I graduated from New Castle High School and was the first person in my family to go to college. Didn't know that I was college material!! But I decided to take a chance on a school then called Youngstown University. Youngstown University took me in and transformed my life.
Mark: When did you realize you were really into art?
Lou: I had a brother who was a commercial artist. Today we call them graphic designers. He would use our bedroom as part of his studio. There was always art hanging on the walls. Being with my brother was an inspiration. My dad lived through the Depression. He believed in his mind the only people that had a job during the Depression were teachers. He wanted his son Lou to be a teacher. So I combined the two.
I studied art education at Youngstown University, graduated…and was hired to teach elementary students in the Sharon City Schools. Then I shifted to the New Castle school district where I taught junior and senior high school.
Mark: When you were younger did you do any drawing?
Lou: Oh yeah!! I bombed a lot of Nazis. If you look under my coffee table there is all kinds of my and my brother's handiwork including shooting North Koreans.
Mark: That's cool you still have some of the stuff that you did under a coffee table!! What a great idea! How many of your brothers and sisters went to college?
Lou: My brother went to art school and eventually taught in the vo-ed school in New Castle. I taught at New Castle High School so there was a Zona on either end!! When I left to teach at Youngstown my future wife took my job and stayed there until she retired.
Mark: Is she of Italian descent also?
Lou: No! Scotch Irish like most of New Castle. Always interesting combination when marrying an Italian.
Mark: There is a huge Italian population in New Castle. But the New Castle Italians seem different than the Youngstown Italians. Am I just imagining that?
Lou: Yeah they're very different…if only for the hot peppers!! Ask for hot peppers in any of the New Castle restaurants and they'll bring out some big red pepper. They don't understand that its olive oil combined with the hot peppers that we love so much in Youngstown.
Mark: We had a salesman who worked for us several years ago. He was from New Castle. When he died we went to the funeral. His family was different than our locals from here. Not the Italians I know. His family was also from extreme southern Italy. But they have their own rich and wonderful culture.
Lou: My grandmother was from that same southern Italian area. She made this absolutely beautiful red sauce. In my opinion that's where the best food come from.
Mark: Did your mom cook?
Lou: My mother would just throw stuff together and it tasted wonderful.
Mark: Did you inherit her cooking skills?
Lou: My God no!!!!
Mark: You don't cook?
Lou: No!!! My mother was old fashioned and she didn't want her boys doing what women should be doing!!! Today she would be really out of step. To this day my wife gets so upset with me because I don't iron! I don't know how to turn an iron on!! I don't know how to turn on a washing machine. My mother never wanted us to do that!!!
Mark: You're not one of those guys who deliberately screws things up so you don’t have to do the assigned tasks, are you?
Lou: No I’m not!!! My wife is wonderful. Even though she complains about the amount of ironing to this day, even though my mother has long been deceased, she prefers to do the clothes and to do the cooking. I am not good at it!!!
Mark: What was it like going to Youngstown University?
Lou: There were four of us that commuted the twenty miles from New Castle.
Mark: What year did you graduate?
Lou: I graduated in 1966. I just got a call the other day. There's going to be an alumni reunion here on campus and they asked me to be the keynote speaker from class of 1966.
Mark: There is a huge list of people that made it big coming from Youngstown and Youngstown State University. It makes my wife crazy because there's always a Youngstown connection!! After 40 years of marriage she continually asks “What is it with you people?”
Lou: Absolutely!! I don't know what would have happened to me if it wasn't for Youngstown. I don't know what I would have done --first of all I wouldn’t have had the money to go anywhere!! My dad was a barber and struggled just to keep food on the table. There wasn't any money for tuition. He paid for my first quarter in college. I saw what a struggle it was for him to borrow that money. From that point on I got Defense Act loans and anything else I could get to pay my way.
Mark: You remember what tuition cost back then? I went to YSU from 68-70. Tuition per quarter was round a 125 bucks. And it was tough school academically. When I transferred to Ohio State I realized how Youngstown demanded excellence while at OSU, at least in the undergraduate school, they taught down to the middle. It was a piece of cake down there.
Lou: It was really remarkable given that the campus itself was not good back then. Just looking for a place to park was difficult. You ended up parking in mud lots. Nothing that resembles the beautiful campus we have today.
Mark: But they did good work.
Lou: They did WONDERFUL work!!
Mark: Back then locals looked down their nose if you went to school here. They were so wrong.
Lou: They were very wrong!! We did well!! I got into the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University where I got my doctorate after I graduated from Youngstown. You may have had classes in basements, the second floor in houses or churches…but the faculty was outstanding.
Mark: Tell me about the art school back then.
Lou: It was difficult. The chairmen of the department back then was Jon Naberezny, God rest his soul. What an extraordinary person he was. He would complain to the president, whoever the president happened to be at the time, whenever the art department needed something. It was located in West Hall which was a former stable for one of the mansions. If you took a watercolor class at eight o'clock in the morning in the winter you couldn’t use the water because it was frozen!! Yet we got a wonderful education. I mean great, great people and educators. The education was first rate.
The Keeper of America's Art