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Figures play a role in Day of the Dead observance

October 30, 2013 2:30PM

Figures play a role in Day of the Dead observance
Day of the Dead figurines are often humorous and usually depict ordinary activities, like the mariachie band on the right.

In a display case in Pittsburg State University’s Grubbs Hall, a mariachi band composed of four little skeletons performs alongside another skeleton in an elegant dancing dress. They are among more than 75 similar skeleton figurines that make up what might be one of the most unusual gifts of art the university has ever received.

“The pieces are catrines and catrinas from Mexico and are a generous gift of Dr. Stephen Brent Wolf, a PSU alumnus,” said Judy Berry-Bravo, chair of the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures.

Day of the Dead figurine: woman dancingBerry-Bravo explained that the figurines are part of the celebration known as Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, which begins on Oct. 31 and concludes on Nov. 2.

“It is celebrated throughout Latin America in slightly different ways, but we hear about it most from Mexico, our closest Latin American neighbor,” Berry-Bravo said. “It is not like our Halloween. It most closely resembles in feeling our Memorial Day.”

Berry-Bravo said Dia de Muertos tradition probably has its roots in a blend of immigrant and ancient indigenous festivals that honor family members who have died.

“Typically, family members visit and tend to the graves of loved ones. They may leave mementos, and have favorite foods that remind them of those who have died. It’s not unusual for families to build small altars in their homes commemorating those who have died,” Berry-Bravo said.

She said the figurines, many of which are humorous or show people engaged in everyday activities, reflect the society’s view of death.

“We very much appreciate Dr. Wolf’s generosity,” Berry-Bravo said.

In a note accompanying the gift, Dr. Wolf wrote that in viewing the figures, “a person gets a feeling for the Mexican joy in living while at the same time understands that all happiness is ephemeral and tenuous.”

Wolf said he chose to donate his collection to PSU in appreciation for his education and in honor of Collen Gray, professor emeritus of foreign languages, whom he described as his “Spanish mentor.”

Wolf said Gray “inspired me to use my Spanish ability to further my work with patients and students.”

Wolf grew up in the Fort Scott area and earned a bachelor of science degree in education with specializations in mathematics, literature and Spanish from PSU in 1973.

He taught Spanish and literature at Mamaton Valley High School for one year before going to Fort Scott High School where he taught geometry and was the cheerleader, pep club and foreign language club sponsor for seven years. During that time, he earned a master’s degree in literature and composition and was then admitted to the KU School of Medicine, graduating in 1985.

Wolf completed a one-year internship in the Pediatric Department at KU Medical Center and then a two-year pediatric residency at the Tulane School of Medicine at Charity Hospital in New Orleans. He fulfilled his Kansas Medical Scholarship requirements by serving as a physician at Pleasanton and Columbus before moving back to New Orleans where he worked for 10 years as a pediatrician while also teaching for the Tulane School of Medicine.

Wolf then moved to Mexico City where he served as a volunteer physician and also took care of his elderly parents. He has since become an expert adviser for students preparing for the GMAT (Graduate Management Admission Test) in the Condesa neighborhood of Mexico City, where he helps worthy Mexican students get accepted into the top MBA programs in the U.S. and Europe.

In addition to the figurines, Wolf donated a collection of about 60 years of the Americas magazine, published by the Organization of the American States in Spanish.

©2013 Pittsburg State University