Like many in Tom Grade’s era, military service was the norm for young men. Instead of waiting to be drafted into the Army, Grade joined the Naval Reserve in his junior year of high school. As a third-class radarman he was put on active duty for four years, eventually applying for officer training.
As a sailor he was sent to the east coast on the USS Ticonderoga carrier. Grade was part of a working crew.
“We did a lot of chipping of paint,” Grade said.
Because of its deck design, the Ticonderoga was unable to pass through the Panama Canal on its way to San Diego.
“We took the hard way. I had the experience of sailing around the equator and Cape Horn,” (South America), Grade said. “It was very rough weather. Green waves are solid water over the deck.”
This particular voyage gave Grade newfound respect for the early explorers.
“I don’t know how they sailed around there,” Grade said.
During his service years he was stationed at Valeo Naval Base near San Francisco and married Bobbie, his college sweetheart. Their family consisted of three children, Kristin, Thomas and John. When he reported on a ship to Hawaii, Bobbie returned to teaching in the Midwest.
Eventually Grade rejoined his family and was stationed at the Great Lakes Naval Base in Illinois. There he was in the education department writing advancement tests for sailors and supervised seven master chiefs.
Grade continues to take to the water as a member of the Mad City Paddlers kayaking, canoing and row boating all over. Every year he leads a paddle trip down and back Sixmile creek from its headwaters to what used to be Mary Lake, which today is a pond due to nature taking over.
Life started in Milwaukee, where Grade graduated from Rufus King High School. He studied two years at UW extension in downtown Milwaukee, where he met his wife, Bobbie of 57 years.
He finished with a degree in art education UW-Madison. For two years he taught middle school art in Beloit. Accepting a position in the Madison school district, he taught art classes at Marquette Middle School while attending classes at UW for Audio Visual director.
“At that time, it was a big thing. Each high school had a library director and a director of audio-visual,” Grade said.
Grade became the Audio-Visual director at Memorial High School working with students and teachers. Together with a crew of volunteer students, the AV department handled all of the school’s camera work, movies and transparencies for over 100 teachers. Grade retired from education at age 60.
Grade has always been interested in woodcarving but it wasn’t until a friend invited him to a three-day class in Westby in Wisconsin Scandinavian flat plane carving that Grade’ interest was piqued enough to continue. He took more classes through MATC, and his carvings became more realistic.
“It is satisfying to start with a piece of wood and come up with something finished,” Grade said. “Most of the time, I have a plan, but sometimes the wood speaks.”
Grade likes to experiment with different wood, but his favorite to work with is basswood, a white pine.
“It has an even grain but hard enough to hold an edge and soft enough to carve easily,” Grade explained. According to Grade, “not going against the grain” is more than a cliché and means something.
The ability to read wood is an important aspect to working with it successfully. Working with the grain produces smooth wood. Cutting against the grain gives endless anguish.
“The process is always a challenge, and the grain can interfere with the project,” Grade said.
Grade has been carving for 25 years, and his talent and scope of projects have evolved. He enjoys creating caricatures, and no two are alike with most of his carvings gifted to his three children and nine grandchildren.
His collection is varied from small figures to walking sticks to a chainsaw bear. Besides lumber yards and wood scraps from other carvers, Grade’s home is surrounded by trees which gives him an ample supply to start new designs.
“Most carvers have about as many carvings that are unfinished than finished. I generally work on two different pieces to stay fresh and let it mellow. I have more mellowing ones,” Grade said. “There’s always room for another piece of wood.”
Grade belongs to the Capital Area Carvers of Wisconsin, an 80-member strong club dedicated to promoting wood carving as an art form by providing educational seminars and that possesses an extensive library. Members work with scouts to earn a merit badge in carving, and Grade has observed younger folks joining the club.
The CACW sponsors a show every October which draws carvers from all over and is attended by well over 1,000 people for the one-day show.
Grade also meets with members of the Waunakee Woodcarvers, a satellite club, at the Waunakee Village Center. Carving with fellow carvers gives opportunity to learn from and assist each other. In September, the Village Hall displayed the group’s hand carved treasures. Grade continues to take classes to learn new skills and to be enthused by fresh ideas.
Besides wood carving, Grade’s passion for art has included water color painting, figures made from clay, relief carving, drawing and photography. Grade’s home displays a few intricate pieces of engravings known as scrimshaw, the art of engraving on bones from a whale or on animal horns. He has always wanted to work with pottery and is looking forward to spending time at the Wheelhouse Studio on the UW campus. Grade has also dabbled with gourds using a wood burning tool.
“I’ve always been interested in art but my strongest suit is teaching and inspiring,” Grade said.