SUNY Retiree Service Corps - Connecting with our retirees through service.
George Wybenga

George Wybenga - Personal Retirement Story

Twenty years ago, I received my first New York State Teachers’ Retirement System check. Since that time, most of my activities have been a continuation of my pre-retirement years.

The Path to America

Photo of George Wybenga, SUNY Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) retireeBorn in Delft, The Netherlands, my whole family survived World War II. If a local lad had not hit and damaged my eye I would probably now be enjoying a Dutch merchant marine pension. Instead, in 1956 I put myself on an immigration quota waiting list because an uncle in Maryland had offered to employ me in his landscaping business. To prepare, I took work in a nursery by day and attended night classes in landscaping architecture.

Two years later, my aunt picked me up at the docks in Hoboken, New Jersey. After registering for the draft, I went to work for my uncle. Six months later he decided to close the business. I was not a U.S. citizen and my draft status was 1-A, which left me without possibilities for employment. When I learned that an enlistment for three-years active duty in the military would speed up my application for U.S. citizenship, I signed up for the U.S. Army and was sworn in at Fort Holabird in Baltimore, Maryland. I became a U.S. citizen in 1960.

Post-Military Life: A New Beginning

Upon my release from active duty in June 1960 I found work as a carpenter, baker, sign painter, and assistant display manager at the E.J. Korvette Department Store in Trenton, NJ. While at Korvette, I attended evening commercial art classes at Trenton Junior College and was fortunate to have a well-known, semi-retired commercial illustrator as an instructor. He encouraged me to move to New York City, where he helped me find employment in a packaging design studio. I had applied to Pratt Institute before my move to the Big Apple but found it financially impossible to enroll in the day program. So I enrolled in the evening school and five years later was awarded a Bachelor’s degree (cum laude) in Graphic Design.

If I had not taken the time to help friends move, I would not have been invited to a party during spring break in my junior year at Pratt – important, because it was there that I met Betty, the woman who became my wife the next year and inspired me to enter the field of education. She was an early childhood specialist, taught public school in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and attended night classes at Wagner College in pursuit of an MA in Education. I applied to and was accepted at Hunter College’s graduate program in Art Education.

After our son Eric’s birth in 1969, we decided to move to a cottage we owned on Long Island. There was little chance of my finding graphic design employment on the Island, and I was loathe to make a two-hour, one-way commute, so I applied for a position as a high school art teacher at two local districts on the advice of a helpful BOCES staff member.

The Unexpected Benefits of Volunteerism and Service to Country

If I had not spent Saturdays as a volunteer with the Pratt Youth Corps giving elementary students a taste of making art, I would not have been hired at Islip High School in Islip, New York and, as a consequence, my first year of salaried teaching satisfied Hunter College’s student teacher requirement. My three years of active military service placed me on an advanced step of the salary scale and absolved me from active reserve duty. Left-over GI Bill entitlement allowed me to earn a second Master’s degree at SUNY Stony Brook.

I loved helping my high school students discover the ability to create and grow as individuals. I managed to overcome the constraints of the 50-minute class period by offering an open studio where a student could spend three or more periods of total involvement in art and/or craft. After eight-plus years, though, I became disillusioned with the district’s sparse art supplies budget. Because a large number of my students were accepted at major art colleges, I was offered a teaching position at Parsons School of Design in New York City.

Program-Building at FIT

Fortuitously, a student of mine who had been accepted at Parsons introduced me to a professor who was developing an upper division program in Packaging Design at SUNY’s Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in Manhattan. When he learned of my design background, this professor asked for my assistance. Together, we built FIT’s Bachelor of Fine Arts program in Packaging Design, the only one of its kind in the U.S., while working to foster a close bond between us and the adjunct faculty. I eventually became chair of the Packaging Design department. 

In 1991 my FIT colleague and I published a book of packaging design patterns with Van Nostrand Reinhold. This manual, The Packaging Designers’ Book of Patterns, is now published by John Wiley and Sons; in retirement I have revised and added to it every four years. The fourth edition is now available all over the world, in English, Chinese, and Spanish translations.

When my lack of computer know-how told me that it was time to retire, I convinced the FIT administration to hire at least one (but ideally two) full-time positions for my replacement. The New York State Teachers’ Retirement System representative was extremely helpful in making me aware of my retirement options and in 1995, I passed the program on to two highly capable educators after working at FIT for 21 years.

The Post-Retirement Years

After retirement, I continued to create and exhibit the serigraphs that had been my primary artistic medium during my career at FIT and elsewhere. A serigraph is an art term for silk screen print (Writing through Silk). You can see examples of my serigraphs at www.cabooseart.com  by clicking the “also visit George's serigraphs site” link at the top of the page. I found creating such art to be very fulfilling.

On September 11, 2001, however, that all changed. I was enjoying a cup of coffee on our porch when I received a phone call from our son (who at that time was living in New York City and working as a writer for Dan Rather) to let me know that he was okay. I had no idea what he was referring to until I turned on our television.

The scenes I saw unfolding live on-screen so reminded me of my experiences of World War II that I had to turn off the TV and search for a diversion. Flipping through my file of reference photos, I came across a picture of a railroad caboose, which I began to paint. I soon realized that I had found my new inanimate “muse.”

I have now painted 265 watercolor images of cabooses, which I exhibit at various train shows. I even have a website (www.cabooseart.com) where people can view and, if they so desire, purchase my caboose paintings. You can also see an example of my work at the bottom of this page.

The search for new cabooses to photograph and paint has led my wife and I to make several cross-country drives over the years.

Volunteerism Today

Twice a month I drive to Stony Brook Hospital to donate platelets (300 + donations to date). I am a trustee of the Railroad Museum of Long Island, director of the local National Railroad Historical Society chapter, an alumni advisor for Stony Brook University’s students, and a director-at-large of NYSUT Retiree Council 39, whose members are retirees of SUNY’s community colleges.

Words of Advice

My advice to future SUNY retirees is to keep busy, learn from every opportunity, and enjoy life.


Photo of OCT Railroad caboose #10, a painting by FIT retiree George Wybenga.


EDITOR'S NOTE: George passed away during the Fall of 2016. He will be greatly missed.

Retirees Service Corps