Local Artist Begins Fight Of His Life

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"I'm a true Sagittarius," said Hugo DiZinno. "My horoscope tells me I have my feet firmly planted in the clouds. That probably tells my whole story."

Not quite. Especially not the latest chapter.

DiZinno, one of Payson's better-known artists, has been diagnosed with terminal bone cancer. The disease has invaded his lumbar region, his spine, his ribs, his right leg.

"But I'm going to fight it until the last minute, as hard as I can," DiZinno said. "I'm not going to give up."

Hugo DiZinno has never given up on anything. Although DiZinno is 85, he looks 60, and he's as mentally acute as an unusually sharp 30-year-old.

Locally, people know him for many reasons. DiZinno designed the Town of Payson logo. He designed the Anglican church on Easy Street. He designed the museum, which he based on every photograph he could find of the old Herron Hotel, which stood at the corner of McLane and Main Street until it burned down in 1920.

DiZinno also worked with artist Craig Lynch on the memorial sculpture dedicated to the six firefighters who died in the Dude Fire; he contributed the statue's face, head, arms and backpack.

But DiZinno's a celebrity outside Payson, too. His paintings and sculptures are on display in homes and galleries from the North Pole to Florida, from New York to Hawaii.

"I've been in the art business since I was 6 years old," he said. "I started out drawing horses. That's what my Mom told me."

Those equine portraits marked the beginning of an auspicious career.

While attending high school in his hometown of Columbus, Ohio, DiZinno took as many art classes as were offered and earned a scholarship to the Cleveland Institute of Art.

"I told everybody that I was going to become an art director at a big agency," he said. "That's all I wanted to do."

With an art degree in hand, DiZinno landed his first job at a Cleveland ad agency, a stint that was interrupted by his enlistment in the Army followed by 23 years in the Army Reserves.

DiZinno spent his post-service weekdays pursuing his career and his weekends on more personal art interests. Primarily a watercolorist, DiZinno learned to paint in "oil, acrylic, tempera ... everything. I like to change around."

Working his way up within increasingly large advertising agencies, DiZinno finally found himself at Ketchum Communications at the time, the nation's 17th-largest agency from which he eventually retired as vice president and executive art director. During his tenure, DiZinno created all the print art and much of the national television advertising for Stouffers, Alcoa, Heinz, Westinghouse and U.S. Steel.

He brainstormed TV commercials at a time when they were done live, and when actress Betty Furness was the beleaguered Westinghouse spokesperson.

"One time, Betty couldn't open a refrigerator door while she was live in front of a few million people," DiZinno said. "Another time, during a commercial for a slant-top washer and dryer, a technician hadn't locked the washer door tightly, so when she turned it on, the water shot out and Betty got drenched. She had a fantastic vocabulary of four-letter words. I think she used them all. And I may have learned a few new ones."

Not long before his retirement, DiZinno and his wife, Maria, were visiting Phoenix when they decided to go on a Rim country camping trip.

"We stopped in Payson and said, 'Look at this place. The air is so clean and the streets are nice and wide.' We bought a double lot that afternoon and flew home wondering, 'What the hell did we do?' But it worked out well."

Upon their permanent relocation in 1979, DiZinno went to the chamber of commerce and offered to help plan for the town's centennial.

"For the next six years, I did all their advertising. The T-shirts, the rodeo, the brochures. All for nothing. I figure they owe me about $63,000 for all the time I put in."

But time has not dimmed DiZinno's passion for his adopted hometown. Neither did a genuine crisis of the heart: the death of Maria in 1998, only two months after doctors found cancer in her lungs.

"I met her in 1939. She was the first girl that I dated twice," DiZinno said, wiping away the tears which began to flow at each mention of Maria's name. "We were married in 1944. We missed 55 years of marriage by three months and eight days."

The couple had three sons: David, 51, Daniel, 46, and Paul, 42.

"Losing her was like getting hit by a 10-ton truck," DiZinno said. "There was laughter in our house constantly. We'd be having breakfast, and some music would come on, and Maria and I would start dancing. The kids would yell, 'Oh, there they go again!'"

DiZinno pauses. Cries.

"It was a horrible, horrible, painful death," he said.

"I'm going through some of the same things now, with my bone cancer. It's terminal, they've told me that. I said, 'How much time do I have?' The answer was, 'I don't know.' That's why I'm fighting as hard as I can.

"I told the (doctor) she had to give me 14 more years, so I can be a 99-year-old cantankerous bastard. Maria always said that I'd achieved two out of those three goals. There's just one left."

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