“I think of him often,” Diane Houk says of the late Robert LeRoy Smith, one of the founding fathers of the Puppetry Arts Institute, which officially opened its doors on Oct. 13, 2001, in the Englewood shopping district of Independence.

“I think of him often,” Diane Houk says of the late Robert LeRoy Smith, one of the founding fathers of the Puppetry Arts Institute, which officially opened its doors on Oct. 13, 2001, in the Englewood shopping district of Independence.


As executive director of PAI and one of its founders, Diane often feels Smith’s spirit, she says, as she works amidst his exquisite puppets and artwork, now on display during PAI’s 10th anniversary celebration. The exhibit runs through July 2012.


Feeling his spirit, she says, may sound creepy to some people, but she feels like Robert is here and she’s proud of his many accomplishments.


“He left an imprint on me as a person. Yeah, he did.”


Though born in Independence on Feb. 22, 1927, and raised on a small farm on Aberdeen Street with two older brothers and four younger sisters, Robert lived most of his adult life in Georgia, Louisiana, Texas and California before returning to Independence in 1991.


After graduating from William Chrisman High School in 1945, Robert pursued his interests in drawing, painting, print making, folk ballads, poetry and puppetry.


While taking night classes in painting and life drawing at the Kansas City Art Institute, Robert worked at Hartzfelds during the day painting backgrounds for windows and signs. He also was involved in sculpting papier-mâché and advertising layout.


It was after leaving Independence in 1948 that Robert made a name for himself as an artist and puppeteer. With Edith Hartness as his partner, they created Parnassus Marionettes and produced and performed puppet shows in the San Francisco Bay area from 1978 to 1990.


“I took etching classes at Fort Mason and later bought an etching press in order to work privately in my own studio,” Robert wrote in a biography. “I began experimenting with materials and unorthodox methods of print making, and turned exclusively to producing monotypes. At the same time I was working with serigraphy.”


After a 43-year absence, Robert returned home and became the artist-in-residence at the Music/Arts Institute, housed in old McCoy Elementary School that he attended. There he taught marionette construction, playwriting and performance for five years.


“He created a marionette troupe and the kids did shows,” Diane recalls. “It was a wonderful thing.”


Of all the marionettes he designed, constructed, painted and dressed, Harry Truman is perhaps the best known, Diane says, because it was Harry who introduced the shows the MAI kids performed at the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library & Museum.


The paths of Diane and Robert never crossed until he joined the Pupperty Guild, a forerunner of the Puppetry Arts Institute, and worked with Diane and three others on the Hazelle project to establish a puppetry center in Independence.


Describing Robert as a “Renaissance Man,” Diane says he could do anything he set his mind to do – like designing a logo for the PAI.


After being told the steering committee wanted the logo to be composed of primary colors and to show diversity and different types of puppets, Robert put his creative skills to work.


“Two weeks later, he brought us our logo and it was perfect,” Diane says with some emotion. “It was just exactly what we wanted.”


Then there was the time the steering committee was trying to come up with a perfect name for the new puppetry organization.


Says Diane: “We knew we had to have puppetry in (the name). We knew we wanted to do something that would make it an art form. But we didn’t want it to become a center.”


Calling Robert a deep thinker, Diane says he did just that. He went home, turned to the dictionary, found what he was looking for, came back to the steering committee and said: “We want to educate people, so we should be an institute.”


And the group excitedly exclaimed, “Yes, perfect!”


Says Diane: “There was real thought among these five people about everything we did, but Robert was the one who came up with ‘institute’ because it was an educational word and we are educating people about what puppetry is about.”


That, however, wasn’t all Robert did for the Puppetry Arts Institute. He gave the institute more than 100 of his marionettes, many of which were displayed at PAI’s grand opening on Oct. 13, 2001, at 11025 E. Winner Road. He also left marionettes with his family.


Robert, though, never got to attend the grand opening. On Oct. 3, he died of a brain tumor at age 74. However, he saw his puppets on display at PAI on Aug. 24 at a “This Is Your Life” celebration, which he proclaimed as “the happiest day of his life.”


“He was such a sweet, calm person (during his illness) and was not afraid of death,” Diane recalls, adding: “He did everything the doctors told him to.”


The 10th anniversary observance will celebrate Robert’s talents not only as an outstanding marionette maker, but also as an artist who worked in serigraph, watercolor, oils and etchings.


Marjorie Drown, Robert’s sister, has loaned the PAI many examples of his artwork. Some of his serigraphs are for sale, with 50 percent of the proceeds going to PAI and the other 50 percent going to the family.


“So that is a help to us,” Diane says, adding: “Times are tough, especially for nonprofits.”


Robert was many things to many people. But to Diane, he was “a very sharing person who had no secrets and wanted to share everything he learned with others.”


Not only that, but he was “very inventive,” Diane says, “Always going to a hardware store and looking at what new materials were available that he might incorporate into his puppets – like PVC pipe and different things like that.”


Frugal was another characteristic Diane used to describe the artisan she revered. Frugal, that is, except when it came to his puppets.


“Anything for the puppets.” she says. “We would always go down to the fancy fabric stores together when he was looking for a particular thing for a particular puppet. That was his splurge.”


And yes, he was real thrifty at times, even to the point of gathering little sticks in his yard. Then at night, Diane says, he would light the sticks in his fireplace and have a glass of wine.


“That was he quite moment,” she says, recalling he sat in front of the fireplace and wrote. Robert authored a book on how to make marionettes about a year before his death.


To further honor this man of many talents, PAI is presenting “Peter and the Wolf” on Oct. 15, featuring Robert Smith’s marionettes and PAI puppeteer Emma McLean. Performances are 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. Reservations are requested by calling 833-9777.


Diane invites the public to stop by PAI from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and see Robert’s remarkable talents firsthand. The cost is $3 for adults and $1.50 for those 16 and younger.