Marek Warszawski

Warszawski: Artist donates works to help fund Fresno State scholarships

For more than three decades, Perry Huffman drew the faces of Valley sports.

There's Tom Seaver, both in portrait and on the mound. Did anyone have a more classic windup?

There's the head of Jim Sweeney ... melded to the body of a bulldog.

There's Jeff Tedford, with feathered hair long since lost, holding a Fresno State helmet with the script logo.

Jerry Tarkanian munching on a towel. Boyd Grant with his horn-rimmed glasses. Kevin Sweeney riding a bulldog. The star-studded 1976 Hot Stove Banquet lineup of -- get this -- Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Seaver, Jim Maloney and Joe Garagiola.

The list goes on: Rod Higgins; Daryle Lamonica; Darryl Rogers; Todd Santos; Peter Verhoeven; volleyball coaches Dennis Janzen and Leilani Overstreet; the West Coast Relays; and many more.

Huffman drew them all, most with a simple pencil. As a Bee staff artist from 1963 to 1995, he drew everything from section covers to political cartoons to "goofies" that drew readers into sports columns. Huffman had a special talent for portraits. Fresno police put a few bad guys behind bars with help from his sketches.

"For an artist, it was the best job from Los Angeles to San Francisco," Huffman says. "It was stable work, and I was just fortunate to have a skill set that let me support my family."

The walls of the northeast Fresno home Huffman, 78, shares with his wife, Barbara, are covered with framed watercolors and oil paintings. A mural in the living room depicts three white egrets against a blue field.

But for years, Huffman's renderings of Valley athletes and coaches just sat in a closet. That gnawed at him. They deserved a better fate. They deserved to be seen, appreciated and given the chance to be beneficial.

Last August, Huffman emailed Fresno State offering to donate his collection of sports portraits and caricatures, if it could be used to raise money for athletic scholarships.

Pat Ogle has been with the Bulldog Foundation since 1982, the first 28 years as executive director and now as a part-time development officer. Long enough to be familiar with Huffman and his work, and also to recognize the uniqueness of this opportunity.

Ogle went to Huffman's house, took numerous photographs, and for a second visit brought along Paul Ladwig, Fresno State's senior associate athletic director.

"The first time I saw Perry's collection it was, 'Wow,' " Ladwig says. "It's true art from an era we don't appreciate anymore. Plus he was also so gracious and so humble about what he did and how long he did it. It was so refreshing to hear."

Ladwig is right about that.

Art such as what Huffman produced has all but disappeared from newspapers and magazines. Replaced by digital photographs, graphics, videos and, of course, downsizing.

While The Bee still employs talented artists -- it doesn't feel like baseball season until I've seen what Steven Parra comes up with for opening day -- they're fewer in number. Along with reporters and editors.

Nothing is ever like it used to be. Oftentimes, change is positive. But when you look at Huffman's drawings, there's an uneasy feeling something has been lost.

"He did all of it with his head, his heart and his fingertips," Ladwig says, "whereas now people do it through a computer program."

From Huffman's collection, Ladwig and Ogle selected 51 pieces. Not all depict Fresno State athletes and coaches, but most do.

They put 15 of them up for auction at last month's annual Night of Champions Gala, which this year moved to the Save Mart Center in order accommodate 450 student-athletes, coaches, invited guests, staff and boosters.

Eleven of the 15 sold. Seven were purchased by the people depicted in them, or by their families. (Fresno State, as a courtesy, sent those folks advance notice and allowed them the chance to make maximum bids.)

Seaver was one who declined -- the Hall of Fame pitcher apparently has enough memorabilia, thank you -- but offered to personalize both drawings of him.

The remaining works, which include additional renderings of Tarkanian, Grant and Jim and Kevin Sweeney, will be integrated into future Athletic Department functions. There also are plans for an online auction so Huffman's art receives as wide an audience as possible.

"We'll give them more publicity and marketing so we can reach the right people," Ogle says.

It's obvious how much all of this means to Huffman, who grew up in Avenal and attended College of the Sequoias and San Jose State before moving to Fresno to work for several ad agencies and landing his job at The Bee.

Two of Huffman's kids attended Fresno State, and so did two grandsons, and over the years he has become a big Bulldogs fan himself.

During last month's auction, while speaking about his donation, he struggled to get the words out without his voice breaking.

When I asked Huffman about that, as we sat together in his living room a couple weeks later, the tears nearly came flooding back.

"I get emotional when I talk about my kids or when I turn in my aluminum cans," he joked. "The drawings, I don't get that emotional about. I was just lucky to be able to do them."