George Wybenga, a Center Moriches painter who was dubbed “America’s Caboose Artist” for his colorful images of hundreds of iconic train cars, died on Oct. 27 from a heart attack in York, Pennsylvania.
The World War II survivor and longtime educator was 79.
Wybenga was born in Delft, the Netherlands, where Dutch and German soldiers fought in the streets just outside his home during World War II, according to his son, Eric. In 1956, Wybenga immigrated to the United States and joined the U.S. Army, serving for three years before being honorably discharged with the rank of specialist second class.
While living in Brooklyn, Wybenga earned a bachelor of fine arts from the Pratt Institute in 1969, and later a master’s degree in art education from Hunter College in 1971 and a master’s in liberal studies from Stony Brook University in 1977.
Wybenga moved to Center Moriches in 1970 and worked as an art teacher in various schools, including in the Islip school district, Suffolk County Community College, Long Island University and the Parsons School of Design before joining the faculty at the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan in 1981.
There, Wybenga, who once worked in the package-design studio of Dixon & Parcels Associates, helped create the nation’s first and only bachelor of fine arts program in packaging design, which he chaired until retiring in 1995.
An accomplished fine artist whose work was displayed in galleries throughout Long Island, Wybenga came upon what he would go on to call his “obsession” on Sept. 11, 2001. Looking for a distraction from the images of the terrorist attacks on his television, Wybenga began drawing a caboose he had once photographed.
In the years that followed, Wybenga crisscrossed the nation in search of the relic railcars, which he would photograph and later paint in watercolors. He went on to create a collection of paintings of cabooses — a subject matter that he told his son embodied “Americana.”
“I think doing that and traveling the country to find these cabooses to photograph really put him in touch all over again with what it means to be an American,” said Eric Wybenga, 47, of upstate Coxsackie. “He really enjoyed immersing himself in something traditionally American.”
The breadth and evocative quality of Wybenga’s work led the American Railway Caboose Historical Education Society, or ARCHES, to name him “America’s Caboose Artist” about five years ago. Each year, Wybenga would donate a painting to the St. Louis-based historical organization, which featured his work in its annual calendars.
ARCHES president Rich Eichorst said Wybenga’s works stand as a sort of visual record of a cherished, bygone era in American railroading.
“It became a symbol of a changing time,” Eichorst said of the caboose. “His late-coming interest in searching them out all around the country to document in different styles is a blessing.”
Wybenga had been working on a book compilation of 270 of his caboose paintings, and he had sent the final proofs the day before his fatal heart attack.
In addition to his son, Wybenga is survived by his wife of 49 years, Betty.
Wybenga’s family asks that those wishing to honor him make a donation to Long Island Cares or the Food Bank For New York City. The family is planning a memorial service in the spring.