William Pae says that when he worked as a mailman in Morrisville, PA, “I’d see some kids and say, ‘Hey, do you know who Boomer is?’ And when they’d answer that they did, I’d say, ‘Well, I created him.’ And they would just stare at me.” He laughed then and laughs now.
For those who do not know, Boomer is the regionally famous mascot for the Trenton Thunder baseball team, the AA affiliate of the New York Yankees that plays its first 2013 homes games this week at Arm & Hammer Park in Trenton.
For those who do, the recently retired mailman and Morrisville resident is telling the truth. And for everyone, the response is normal. Who would ever suspect that the guy in the gray-blue uniform and delivering credit card bills and fast food circulars is also the same guy who created a beloved area icon?
Sitting at a table at the Friendly’s Restaurant in Morrisville, Pae — bright with a white beard and smile — sits before Boomer coloring books and an album of photos and tells his tale.
But this time he does not start as the mailman. “I’m an artist,” he says, “I worked for Cybis Porcelain for 20 years.”
Cybis was a Trenton industry that produced fine hand-made porcelain collectibles. It was named for Eastern European artists Boleslaw and Marja Cybis, who had moved their successful three-dimensional collectible art studio from New York City to Trenton. That was in the 1940s when the area was still a pottery center that included Lenox and Boehm.
“The Franklin and Danbury mints killed the business,” says Pae, noting how the hand crafting team of artisans at Cybis could not compete with the companies producing less expensive collectibles. When the company moved the major part of its art producing studios from Trenton, Pae took advantage of the civil service preference afforded through his GI benefits and joined the Postal Service.
Cybis today is just a company showroom at 5 Norman Avenue, Trenton, but for Pae it is the place that enabled him to develop the skills that would help him create two things for which, he believes, he will be remembered.
Pae was born and raised in Mercerville. He points out quickly that his 1966 graduating class was the last one in the old Hamilton High School East. His father was a blue collar worker at Congoleum and Vahlsing Produce Factory in Robbinsville (where he supervised machines and kept truck schedules). Pae’s mother stayed home with their eight children.
“Painting in the basement is my earliest recollection of doing art,” he says. “My older brother Sonny started to draw Disney characters on the basement walls after they were whitewashed. I would imitate him and got hooked.”
His fortes were creating images of Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse, Pluto, and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. “Anything Disney,” he says, adding that since his parents did not object he continued to develop.
“I used to copy every comic book I could, Disney, Superman, and, then, Playboy cartoons. I got really good at that, and guys would want me to make a drawing and then put their girlfriend’s faces on the bodies. I made $10 or so for each one. It was my gas and cigarette money,” he says.
He adds that he also started getting competitive. “Whenever I’d see anybody make things in school, I’d see it and would try to do it better.”
Pae eventually took high school art classes and credits teacher Robert Wood for opening a life for him. “Mr. Wood would take us to Montclair and other colleges to see art departments. But I came from a poor family. There was no way I was going to college. Yet he told me to go see this guy at Cybis and get your foot in the door. He wrote a letter to Cybis and was the one who get me in.”
Pae’s fledgling career, however, was interrupted by the Vietnam War era. “I went to Cybis, worked six months, and then got drafted into the army.” He served two years as a nurse aide. When he returned to Trenton his job was waiting for him. “I started as an apprentice in the mold shop and eventually became a designer. I did circus stuff, clowns. I also did story book things.” He also married and had a son, Todd.
Of those days he says, “It was the perfect studio. Everyone knew one another. And everyone was working on the same thing. Cybis was a fun place. We had deadlines and it was serious, but we worked together to get things done.”
Pae smiles as he lists the names of people connected with Cybis: “Justice Hughes’ wife, John Wayne, and Agnes Moorehead. We sent stuff to the pope. When the presidents traveled, they would come to Cybis or Boehm and ask for gifts. There was the swan that Nixon took to China. I didn’t design it, but I worked on.”
With the drive to create and advance, Pae said that he took up researching and looking for ideas. He also took art classes at Trenton Junior College, the former Trenton School of Fine and Industrial Arts, and studied drawing and sculpture.
The extra studies led to his ability to think in three dimensions and move up the ladder. He became a designer and created some of his favorite Cybis sculptures, including “Rumbles the Clown.” “It’s an image of my son and our dog,” he says.
It was a good time that did not last.
Pae says that by 1986 there were lots of changes. As Boehm, Lenox, and Cybis moved from the city, he moved to the post office. One marriage ended and another began with Patty, a Cybis artist who had studied at the Moore College of Art in Philadelphia. He moved from Hamilton to Morrisville.
Yet Pae’s urge to create characters and caricatures remained. “When I was working for the post office, I did caricatures of baseball players. People enjoyed it,” he says, adding that he would give them away or sell them for a modest price when coworkers insisted.
In addition to cartoons, he created drawings, influenced by famous illustrators. “Mr. Wood wrote in my school yearbook, ‘To the future Norman Rockwell.’ He uses caricatures, but he works in realism. I also like Howard Pyle.”
He also recalls artist Jon Gnagy, who as “Television’s Original Art Teacher,” was a regular presence on television from the 1940s to the 1960s and created the popular Learn to Draw kits.
Says Pae: “I’m the kind of artist that when I work I don’t do any sketches. I just start and draw very light. I see it developed. As I do, I say it’s falling into place. Then I say, it’s working. Then put the pencil down. It’s time and I am done. I just know when it’s done.”
As for subject matter, “I always like fun things. I don’t take it seriously. I used to do a lot of birthday cards. You want people to appreciate the fine arts, but people don’t get to do it. A Cybis artist gave me some good advice: always remember to do what you like to do.”
It was advice he followed at the post office with some recognition. “They used to have a calendar and have employees submit pictures. I got something in, and it was sent out nationally in 1998. I would pick up little things to work on.”
Then came something big and booming.
“My son (Todd) went to college in Miami to play baseball,” says Pae. “He then worked for the Phillies in Clearwater in 1993, the year the Phillies were taking off. He got a chance to come up here. The Phillies brought him up. They were heading towards the pennant. In the meantime the Thunder contacted him. Everything was just working out. They needed help, and he got a job at Thunder as a business operations manager. He dealt with concessions, parking, printing, and things.”
Pae says that one day his son asked, “‘Dad, can you come up with a mascot?’ And I had it knocked out in two days.”
The artist had already figured that the Thunder might want a mascot one day and had been considering what he would do about the logo with a thunderbird image. The mascot “had to have a bird’s head, that’s part of the logo,” Pae says, “but I wanted to make him a happy character. When I first did him, I had his legs a little heavier. But everything was the same: his face, his hat, his belt. Did you ever see any of the Disney characters? Mickey Mouse has big feet. I always try to keep it the way the Phillie Phanatic is. He has character and everyone loves him. What kid doesn’t like big feet and a big head?”
The process that created Boomer is connected to both Pae’s drawing in the basement and his experience at Cybis. “When you’re doing a character, stay with the character, yet keep it very simple. There was an artist at Cybis who looked out the window. It was snowing, and in the snow was a white bunny. The designer just said, ‘snow ball’ and started creating a piece that made loads of money for Cybis.”
Pae also came up with the mascot name, connecting the weather condition with sports. “It just came to my mind, ‘Boomer’ Esiason,” the nickname for Julius Esiason, retired NFL quarterback and a current television sports commentator. His mother gave him the name because he was constantly kicking in the womb. “ I stayed in the frame of thunder and boomer,” says Pae. “To me it was obvious.”
Boomer was not the only design considered. Once the word got out that the Trenton team was looking for a mascot other artists submitted designs, including a living baseball bat, a walking glove, and a two-headed bird.
But Pae’s love of caricatures, understanding of three-dimensional popular figures, and drawing happy cartoons tipped the scales, and Boomer was born. “When you do something like this, this is for kids and family. This is not a competition. The only thing (the Thunder management) gave me for my original drawings was $250. But I didn’t do it for money; I did it for my son.”
Pae notes that when his son got married at Waterfront Park (the home of the Thunder) he had someone dress up like Boomer and appear at the reception.
Like any proud parent, Pae is happy to show pictures of Boomer and talks about accomplishments. “The guy who first played Boomer did it for a long time,” Pae says, adding that the Thunder management has to make sure that the person in the costume understands being around children, not turning too fast, and careful about touching.
He says that wearing the costume can also be a challenge in the heat. “Every 15 or 20 minutes the head has to come off to cool the wearer down. I think the Phillie Phanatic has some type of air conditioning” in the outfit.
Then Pae turns a page and shows another creation, one that was exhibited in one of the nation’s premier museums, showed up in a major newspaper, and is heading to an elite collection: two resin and acrylic lapel pins that bear the caricatures of Bill and Hillary Clinton.
“It was 1994 and the Clintons were taking a lot of heat,” he says about his urge to create the images of the president and the first lady. However, thinking as a postman, he was afraid that the pins might be crushed during the mail journey. So during a visit to Washington, DC, he put them in a local mailbox.
After several weeks, he says, “I got a call from the Smithsonian, and they said (the pins) would be on display with other things sent to the Clintons. They were in a Smithsonian exhibition catalog. Then there was a story in the New York Times with the pins shown. And I learned that they’ll end up at the Clinton Presidential Library,” he says. “You don’t know how it’s going to go.”
That’s something he remembers today as he and his wife of 27 years tend to their two adopted daughters (Tiann, 19, and Ming-Li, 17), and son Todd serves as the principal of Riverside High School in southern New Jersey.
Instead of showing up at mailboxes, Pae now shows up in his studio where he creates wood carved cabinets that bear faces of President Lincoln, Civil War soldiers, and Santa Claus. He also has two easels where he divides his time between oils and acrylic paints, doing landscapes and portraits.
“I love it. It’s like I tell my girls, I don’t do my art to get famous. If someone likes it, I give it to him or her. It’s great.”
Pae says that his earlier influences continue, but he seems to have come a bit further than the basement. “The Clinton pins and Boomer. That’s what I’ll be known for. I’ll always be grateful.”