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Friday, November 9, 1990 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Paul Luvera, An Italian Grocer Who Carved Indian Totem Poles

Paul N. Luvera Sr. was a poorly educated Italian immigrant, a grocer, a lousy politician, a community activist, a fierce patriot, a world-famous carver of totem poles and, through it all, a character.

``I presume some professional writers and carvers will turn up their noses, but this book is not written for them, it is for you and me,'' Mr. Luvera wrote in the preface of ``How to Carve and Paint Totem Poles.''

Mr. Luvera, whose self-published book made him somewhat famous and whose totem poles can be found from here to the Netherlands, died at his home in Anacortes Sunday. He was 92.

``He was always a person who in my youth I guess I was embarrassed by because he was so outspoken,'' said Mr. Luvera's son, Paul Luvera Jr., a Mount Vernon attorney.

His father got on well with others and served in the state Senate from 1953 to 1957, but ``he never learned the art of being a politician.''

He did, however, learn the art of sculpting wood. And Mr. Luvera's son is in no small way responsible for his father's fame as an Italian who studied the totem poles of Northwest natives and then carved his own.

In the 1950s, young Paul was working aboard Alaskan fish boats to help pay his way through Gonzaga University Law School. Mr. Luvera's wife, Mary, fascinated by Northwest Indian art, asked her son to bring back a miniature totem pole.

He did. It was made in Japan.

She asked him to try again the next season, but the genuine article could not be purchased.

``That's when I volunteered to carve her one,'' Mr. Luvera wrote in his book. ``I started on a small 16-inch totem and carved three of them. They were all miserable-looking creations. I was really ashamed of them, and I threw them on the wood pile to be burned.''

Mary saved them, painted them and presented them to her husband for Christmas. Convinced that they weren't so bad after all, Mr. Luvera began refining his technique, supplementing practice with extensive research.

In 1957, he retired from Luvera's Market, the family grocery of 35 years, and began carving in earnest. Mary did the painting. Friends got the early works.

Word spread, and pretty soon the Luvera home on Fidalgo Island, overlooking Guemes Channel, was a virtual forest of totem poles.

In 1977 he wrote the book and shopped it around to the New York publishing titans, but they weren't interested in totems. So he and Mary invested their $20,000 life savings and had 5,000 copies printed up.

He might not have been much of a politician, but Mr. Luvera knew something about business. He needed publicity, and Chicago columnist Mike Royko was just the man to give it to him.

``I would like to show those smart aleck Eastern publishers how wrong they were,'' Mr. Luvera wrote Royko. The syndicated columnist obliged, an avalanche of mail ensued and all 5,000 books were sold.

``How to Carve and Paint Totem Poles'' is in its seventh printing by Snohomish Publishing Co. in Snohomish.

The fact of an Italian teaching others how to carve totem poles did not go unscrutinized by those who contend the craft is better left to North American natives, but Mr. Luvera pointed out that the art was nearly lost for a time, and he took pains in the book to duly recognize its origin.

``We must always remember that the Indians were the most artistic people in the world,'' he wrote. ``Whatever they carved was original, for they had no museums and libraries for reference.''

Mr. Luvera was born in Calabria, Italy. He moved to Coleman, Alberta, in 1910 to join his family working in the coal mines. He moved to Anacortes and, with the help of his father, opened the grocery in 1922.

Mr. Luvera was active in numerous civic organizations and served in 1987 as grand marshal of the Anacortes 96th anniversary parade.

He is survived by his wife of 64 years; his son Paul; two daughters Phyllis Luvera Ennes and Anita Luvera Mayer, both of Anacortes; 14 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.

Services were held yesterday. Memorial contributions can be made to the Luvera Rotary Scholarship Fund at U.S. Bank, P.O. Box 100, or to the Fidalgo Masonic Scholarship Fund, P.O. Box 505, Anacortes, 98221.

Copyright (c) 1990 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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