Thomas Hope is a painter who has had a gallery showing in Spain. He is a sculptor; he does carpentry, brickwork and stonework; he plays piano and guitar and composes music; and he is fluent in three languages, having lived abroad for many years. He designed several houses, including the one he built for himself — a one-of-a-kind rambling structure in South Gouldsboro that incorporates old-world stone walls, an arched stone hallway and driftwood beams. And oh, by the way, he has been practicing emergency medicine in Bangor for 32 years.
One of my favorite children’s storybooks, which happens to be set in Maine, is Barbara Cooney’s “Miss Rumphius.” It tells the story of a girl who had three goals: she would see faraway places, come home to live by the sea and do something to make the world more beautiful. As I think over Thom’s story, I can’t keep “Miss Rumphius” from my mind. Thom has lived in faraway places, he came home and built a house by the sea and every day he does something to make the world more beautiful.
Thom grew up in Nyack, N.Y., overlooking the Hudson River. His mother was one of the first subjects Thom brought into our conversation, and it is clear that she has been one of the most profound influences in Thom’s life. Dorothea Stater Hope had a doctorate in biochemistry, was a concert pianist, an artist and a lifetime inspiration for her son. Her artwork hangs alongside Thom’s throughout his home, and she comes up regularly in Thom’s recounting of his life experiences.
A second constant in Thom’s life was his dream of building his own house one day. It began when he was five years old and built sand castles and dirt forts. Throughout his life his attention was drawn toward construction sites and potential settings for his future home.
In 1961, when Thom was 13, his family spent the summer in England, his father’s home country. Influenced by a book, Thom asked his mother if he could go youth hosteling by himself for a week around Wales. To his surprise, she said yes. He scrounged up a 3-speed girl’s bike and took the train to Wales. It was a transformative experience.
“People in the villages were so friendly and generous. They’d ask, ‘Where are your parents?’ and I’d tell them I was on my own. They’d call up the baker — the baker’s light would come on. They’d call the butcher for something to feed me.”
Thom fell in love with England, and asked if he could go to school there.
“If you make the honor roll this year,” his mother said, “I’ll see what I can do.”
So Thom made the honor roll.
“It was an eye-opener to be an unruly American in an English school,” said Thom, but he thrived in the structured environment. He stayed for four years, getting terrific exposure to the arts and architecture as well as biology and chemistry, not to mention exposure to the world and to independence.
“On vacations when everyone else went home, I’d hitchhike all over Europe.”
Thom asked his mother once, years later, how she could have let him take that bicycle trip alone.
“You always showed a good sense of survival,” she said.
I expect she saw even more — the light of curiosity and wonder in a young man thirsty for exploration. She did well to set him loose, because the freedom opened Thom up to new worlds that nurtured both his intellect and his creative soul.
Thom attended college in New York, where he studied fine arts and art history, then he returned to Europe. In Belgium, he quickly realized that art would not earn him a living, so he enrolled in medical school in Brussels, taking classes in French and in Flemish.
“That was where I really learned how to study,” he said.
As he studied medicine, Thom also explored his world atlas, always looking for the ideal setting for his future house. He decided it would have to be on the ocean.
The medical profession was ideal for Thom in many ways.
“It is stimulating, your brain never gets stagnant, and there is always something new to learn. You can never know it all.” At the same time, he said, “medicine was never the center point of my life.”
Thom found work as a physician back in the states, but for a long time he continued visiting Europe and working on his art, often for months at a time. Notwithstanding Europe’s charm, somewhere along the way the state of Maine inserted itself in Thom’s psyche. It felt like home. He took a job in Bangor in 1980 and immediately began looking for land to build on. In September of 1982 he bought a piece of coastal property in South Gouldsboro, overgrown with puckerbrush, and he set to work — practicing medicine and building a house.
“I was living two lives. I was happy.”
The house and grounds, a perpetually evolving work of art, grew to accommodate aging parents and expanding hobbies. Thom and his wife Pamela keep beautiful gardens and a meadow filled with many varieties of fruit trees.
“Fruit trees are his passion,” Pamela said.
I had to laugh. “How many passions do you have, Thom?”
His answer was a thoughtful one. The most important thing, the thread that weaves everything together, he said, is curiosity. Curiosity and patience.
Thom looks forward to retiring before too long, so he’ll have even more time for art. He wants to build a stone bridge over his pond. He is planning to create a stained glass window for a wall in his home. He wants to take a course in welding. And he described his idea, under construction in his mind, for an illustrated children’s book.
In his house by the sea, after a life in faraway places, Thom continually makes the world more beautiful.
Robin Clifford Wood welcomes feedback at email@example.com.