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A Life: Lillian DeGiacomo ‘couldn’t imagine herself living anyplace other than Vermont’

  • Lillian Wuttke DeGiacomo and Wally DeGiacomo with Lillian's handmade dolls in Barnard, Vt., in a circa 1980s photograph. (Family photograph)

  • Lillian Wuttke DeGiacomo in a circa 1940s photograph. (Family photograph)

  • Barnard Progressive Club's two oldest members Lillian Wuttke DeGiacomo, left, and Hannah Kahn, right, with Margaret Edwards in a 2014 photograph. (Christopher Wuttke photograph)

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 3/8/2020 10:16:16 PM
Modified: 3/8/2020 10:16:12 PM

BARNARD — If anyone in the Upper Valley ever called or thought of Lillian DeGiacomo as a flatlander, the name didn’t stick.

Never mind that she came to Barnard from away — her native Brooklyn, N.Y., by way of Pennsylvania and Iowa. Within months of her arrival in the Upper Valley with second husband, Wally DeGiacomo, in 1982, people were calling her The Doll Lady.

So Joe LaDouceur thought of her right away in 1985, after turning up a head of porcelain while plowing a field on his Bowman Road Farm.

“You could tell it was old, but it wasn’t cracked or anything,” LaDouceur, now 81, recalled recently. “My wife gave it to Lillian, and she made a doll out of it. It went from the grave, so to speak, back to life.”

Long before DeGiacomo died on April 18, 2019, a few months shy of her 102nd birthday, her family, friends and neighbors lost count of how many dolls she brought to life — from scratch and from historical archives as well as from the grave.

“At some point she started collecting antique dolls, like her mother did, and she took a course in how to repair them, when she was still in Iowa,” Christopher Wuttke, one of Lillian’s five sons with her first husband, William Wuttke Sr., said last week. “She learned how to repair those, and then she started making reproductions of antiques, casting molds of the heads in porcelain, painting all the features, creating the bodies, designing and making the clothes. She made hundreds of them, at least.”

The dolls she didn’t give to her six granddaughters and three great-granddaughters, Lillian displayed and sold at The Different Drummer, the antiques and gift shop that she and Wally ran in Barnard, as well as at craft fairs and stores, museums and commercial stores around Vermont.

Many of the other dolls fill some of Will Wuttke’s earliest memories of his grandmother.

“When my sister Callie and I were little and went to see her and Wally, the house was full of them,” said Wuttke, who grew up in South Royalton and now attends the University of Vermont. “She was always working on them. That and her ceramics.”

In 2002, the year Wally died, DeGiacomo consulted recently retired college English teacher and new Barnard resident Margaret Edwards about adding another skill to her toolkit of creativity.

“As soon as Lillian learned that I was leading a workshop in memoir writing, she signed up,” Edwards said during an exchange of emails last week. “Thereafter, she was — as I would tease her — a ‘star pupil.’ At age 89, she completed volume 1 of her memoirs, and then over the next several years, she produced volume 2. After that, she embarked on editing the publication of a remarkable prison diary of cartoon images, drawn by her first husband in secret while he was a prisoner of war to the Japanese in the Philippines.”

During the war, Lillian had worked at the Grumman aircraft plant on Long Island. And after Bill came home, they moved first to Pennsylvania and later to Des Moines, Iowa, where she worked as an administrative assistant at Drake University. On the side, she fine-tuned her doll-making skills and eventually started a porcelain business.

Bill died in 1977, and four years later, Lillian learned of the passing of Wally DiGiacomo’s wife, Marie The couples had double-dated, and they’d stayed in touch. By then, Wally, a native of the Bronx, had been living in Barnard with Marie since 1953, raising two sons and a daughter, co-running the Barnard General Store and later the Volkswagen garage in Woodstock and serving in a variety of civic roles, among them 12 years on the Selectboard.

So once they married, Lillian decided to move with Wally to his 1820s-vintage house in the rural heart of Windsor County.

“They kept it just the way it was way, way back,” Joe LaDouceur recalled. “When you walked in the house, you walked back in time.”

Between her duties at The Different Drummer and her artisan work, Lillian also found time to join Barnard’s Silver Lake Progressive Club, the Barnard Historical Society — which Wally and Marie had helped form — the Vermont Crafts Council and the Vermont Council of the Arts.

“She loved it from the start,” Christopher Wuttke said. “She couldn’t imagine herself living anyplace other than Vermont.”

As Lillian and Wally entered their 80s, two of her sons moved to the Upper Valley — Keith in 1998, with his wife, Nancy, and their infant son, Will, and 2-year-old daughter Callie; Christopher a year later — to help the couple adjust.

And they soon fell under the same spell.

“We spent our first few months in ‘the upstairs house,’ as Callie called it — an apartment above Lillian’s kiln area and Wally’s shop,” Nancy Wuttke said. “Those were precious months. I had a new teaching job in Bethel while Keith stayed home with the kids. He had his mother downstairs for advice as needed, and Wally always had a job for him when I got home.”

After the Wuttkes moved to their own place in South Royalton, they often combined visits to Lillian in Barnard with outings to Billings Farm and Museum in Woodstock “to see Grandma’s doll in the living room of the farmhouse,” Nancy Wuttke said. “Lillian had been commissioned to create a very specific porcelain doll with time-period accurate clothes she also made. I believe it’s still there.”

David Corriveau can be reached at dcorriveau@vnews.com or 603-727-3304.




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