YORK, Maine —- Sumner Winebaum, a “cheerful, optimistic guy” who thought any idea could be realized, and a businessman, philanthropist and sculptor who will leave a lasting legacy in both Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and in his hometown of York, died Monday at age 91.
The son of Harry and Mollie Winebaum, he was born and raised in Portsmouth and attended Portsmouth High School, and spent much of his life giving back to his hometown community.
He started his career in New York City in advertising as a copywriter and account executive at Young and Rubicam in the “Mad Men” era, living and working in New York City, Milan and Paris. Winebaum helped create some of the earliest television commercials for clients such as Johnson and Johnson, General Foods and General Electric. In New York, he met and married Helen Auerbach, an accomplished television and stage actress, who became his beloved wife of 65 years until her passing in 2018.
When he, his wife and two sons, Sam and Jake, moved to Europe in 1962, he pursued his interest in art and history. The family explored European museums, archaeological sites and the countryside every weekend.
Sam Winebaum recalled a father and mother who were endlessly interested in everything from history to art to the natural world.
“They made a great team,” he said. “When people would explain why something couldn’t be done, his approach was, ‘Why shouldn’t we do it? It’s a good idea. It’s a good cause, so why not?’ My mom was more detail-oriented and he was all optimism.”
But he and and his wife wanted to raise their family on the Seacoast, so he left advertising to move back home and run Winebaum News, a publications distribution business his father had founded.
Those years in Europe, though, would have a lasting legacy on both his children. “We were always going to museums and churches. We’d grab the guidebook and off the family would go,” Sam Winebaum said.
The Winebaums’ parenting style, he said, was “to give us a basic grounding in an area, be it writing or art or hiking, and then we were on our own. They let us take any well-grounded chance and said, ‘Give it a try.’” For instance, Sam Winebaum recalled being no more than 13, right after the family moved back to New Hampshire, when he returned to France to take part in an archaeological dig at a fortress with a group of kids his age.
“They were not helicopter parents,” Sam Winebaum said.
Sumner Winebaum grew the Portsmouth-based family business into the largest of its kind in northern New England prior to retiring in 1994. Sam Winebaum joined him in the business, making it three generations working together.
Sumner Winebaum was a lifelong athlete and former New Hampshire junior golf champion, an avid tennis player and cyclist, but it was skiing that was his greatest sports passion and one he pursued for more than 60 years with a loyal group of ski buddies and his family at his favorite ski areas: Stowe, Alta and Jackson Hole.
After retiring, he began giving back to the community and sculpting full time.
Winebaum earned critical acclaim and commercial success as a sculptor with completed commissions for Young and Rubicam, York Hospital, the Japanese American Society, Temple Israel, public parks in York, including at the Hartley Mason Reservation in York Harbor and at Mount Agamenticus, and for numerous individuals. He had many solo exhibits of his work including one in recent years at Discover Portsmouth Center. His works are owned by many museums in New England.
At York Hospital, Sumner was commissioned to complete several sculptures, but perhaps none as visible for all to see as the “loving kindness” cupped hands in the main lobby.
“The wonderful thing about Sumner was not just his artistic talent, but his willingness to engage with us to convey what we were thinking and feeling,” the hospital’s president, Jud Knox, said.
Knox remembered driving into the hospital parking lot one Saturday morning when he saw the loving kindness sculpture on a flatbed truck ready for installation. “And I started to cry. It’s such a meaningful, heartfelt sculpture. And it’s very big piece — not just physically, but spiritually. I’ll never forget that feeling as I drove in. It stopped me in my tracks.”
Winebaum and his wife were always philanthropic, serving on numerous nonprofit and civic boards and donating to countless local organizations. He served many local organizations including Theater by the Sea, Greater Piscataqua Charitable Foundation, Strawbery Banke Museum, Wentworth Coolidge Mansion, Portsmouth Athenaeum and Temple Israel.
Doreen MacGillis of the York Land Trust said that while his wife was the moving force behind the land trust, Winebaum was also very much a valued voice.
“Sumner was a renaissance man in every sense of the word. I admired him so much not just for his creative talent as a sculptor and his business acumen, but for his overwhelming generosity and vision as a philanthropic leader,” she said. “On a more personal note, Sumner was a dear friend, someone who listened well, offered support and encouragement, and was so much fun to be around. He was a treasure who will be missed.”
In May 2018, Winebaum was honored by the Seacoast Repertory Theatre in Portsmouth as the first recipient of an award to be given out annually in his name.
“Sumner cast a huge shadow over the arts in Portsmouth for many decades,” said Alan Gold, president of the Seacoast Repertory Theatre’s Board of Directors. Winebaum was a founder of the Bow Street Theater Trust, which owns the theater building, Gold said.
As a longtime board member, “he held us accountable, fought fiercely whenever he thought the theater was being unfairly criticized and invested considerable funds to keep the theater alive,” Gold said.
“For me personally, he was a friend and mentor. He’ll be missed, but he will also always be remembered in the Seacoast for his many contributions.”
There will be a private funeral service. A public memorial service will be held at Temple Israel in Portsmouth at 4 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 18. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made in his memory to the Seacoast Repertory Theater or Strawberry Banke’s Shapiro House.