Thomas Wyroba loved making art, but he loved teaching it even more.
And last Sunday, just seven months after he retired from the New World School of the Arts, where he was one of its founding teachers, he died in his sleep.
The cause of death was cardiac arrest. He was 64.
“He retired in January and it just broke his heart,” says Dr. Stacey Mancuso, Wyroba’s wife of 43 years and the principal of Design and Architecture High School (DASH). “He [had] that ultimate passion for each and every student.”
“He was an incredible teacher,” says Maggy Cuesta, New World’s Dean of Visual Arts. “He gave his all. The students were a huge part of his life. Even though he was tough on them, they knew he was their friend and they could trust him as a mentor.”
Hired for New World’s opening in 1986, Wyroba taught painting, drawing, ceramics, and performance art there for 27 years. He brought his verve for performance and a sense of humor into the classroom; he would jump from the floor onto a drawing table to get students’ attention, and made his signature “knuckle monsters” – small sculptures – by slamming a fistful of clay onto a table. On Valentine’s Day, he’d pass out dozens of hand painted paper hearts.
Over the years, he inspired hundreds of aspiring artists, playing a crucial role in helping them get scholarships at top art schools, calling college officials to explain why a particularly talented student deserved help. The 20-some visual arts students who graduated each year received between $8 and $10 million in scholarship offers, says Cuesta, much of it because of Wyroba’s advocacy.
“He went out of his way to talk to the college reps; he had a gift for that,” she says. “The reps trusted him - he was very honest.”
One of those students was Michael Loveland, 41, an early New World graduate and Wyroba student, who credits his former teacher with getting him a full scholarship to the Maryland Art Institute. “Without him and New World, I would never have gone to college,” says Loveland, an artist who also teaches art. He struggled in school and was the first person in his family to go to college.
“The first 20 minutes of any conversation was him telling you about his students, what they’re doing, where they got accepted, what award they just won,” says Loveland. “Teaching art was something that he loved and he transferred that love. He taught me this was something I could do for a lifetime.”
Wyroba’s family moved from Buffalo to Miami when he was 12. A talented baseball player, he chose to study art at Ohio State University, earning a BFA in Ceramics and one of the country’s first MFA’s in Performance Art.
He and Mancuso met at school and married in 1982. The couple moved to Miami and began teaching art in Miami-Dade Public Schools. They had two daughters – one of whom, Alexandra, married one of Wyroba’s former students last Saturday.
After Mancuso was chosen to head DASH in 1999, the couple began a friendly, but spirited, competition for talent.
“We had a rule in our house that during the three months we auditioned students we did not talk about it at all,” says Mancuso. “If one of his potentials went to DASH all hell broke loose.”
But they treasured their roles at Miami’s top art schools, and their part in fostering artists in Miami as the city has boomed as a cultural center. “It was a humbling privilege to work in these schools,” says Mancuso. “To work together to build this portion of the arts scene in Miami.”
She is expecting hundreds of Wyroba’s former students to attend a memorial on Saturday in the Design District. “They’re flying in from all over the country,” she says. “He did more than teach them art – he molded minds and built character in his students. He taught them to be tenacious, to go into the art world and conquer it.”
Wyroba is survived by Mancuso and their daughters Alexandra, 31, and Elizabeth, 29. A memorial will be held from 2 to 5 p.m. at the Moore Building, 4040 NE Second Ave., Miami. In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be made to MDC-WyMan Scholarship Fund in Wyroba’s memory.