Published: December 3, 2019
By Laura Beach
WATERFORD, CONN. – A photograph shared by Old Lyme, Conn., dealer Jeffrey Cooley shows Ralph N. DiSaia as we will always remember him. Tall, strong, playful and exuberant, he stands, all 6-foot-5-inches of him, with his head thrown back, his arms outstretched in a giant victory sign. Seated nearby, Karen, his wife of almost 39 years, regards his antics with affection and knowing amusement.
DiSaia, 70, left this world on November 22 after a brief, brave struggle with cancer. “His death was much like his life – quick, calm, graceful and sure,” Karen told friends. To the end, his concern for the well-being of others was foremost.
Within the antiques community, Ralph was known as one half of the indivisible DiSaia Management, the show management company Karen and Ralph launched as an outgrowth of their first business, Oriental Rugs Ltd. In the former, Ralph sometimes went by the title of facilities manager, which understated his herculean contributions. With humor, tact, empathy and no little brawn, he made the show go on, whatever the circumstance. In that way and in so many others, Ralph was indispensable.
Johns backed up? Newport. Carpet deliveryman missing in action? Southport-Westport. Walls absorbing unfathomable quantities of paint? Washington. Duck pond resulting from 3 am downpour? Wayside. At the height of their careers as show dealers, the DiSaias traveled six months a year. Karen recalls, “I woke up in our hotel room one night to find a light on. Ralph was seated on the floor of the walk-in closet creating a schematic on a salvaged piece of cardboard. Rain was forecast, and he was worried the dealers would get wet packing out.”
“If there was so much as a cockroach, I’d scream and Ralph would be there. He was gracious, modest, never lost his cool and always did what needed to be done,” says dealer Diana Bittel, who, like the DiSaias, learned the art of show management as an Antiques Council volunteer before going pro. Years later, she and the DiSaias joined forces to manage, among others, the Philadelphia Antiques and Art Show.
Ralph often hailed dealers and others from on high during set up. As Antiques and The Arts Weekly publisher R. Scudder Smith recalls, “We would hear a ‘Hello’ coming from above, and there was Ralph on a ladder doing some repair for a dealer. Somehow, we never thought he needed a ladder. By the opening, there stood Ralph, handsome as always in suit and tie, ready to greet customers.”
“I’m sure dealers never knew half of what he dealt with, the disasters he single-handedly prevented. If a light went out in someone’s booth, he was on it,” said Connecticut dealer Arthur Liverant.
“Ralph was able to take on 50-plus dealers who wanted to load in or out now. He saw the big picture, broke down the issues one by one, all with a joke or three or four. He will be greatly missed by all of us who knew and worked with him at the Antiques Dealers Association of America and by the greater antiques community of dealers and collectors,” says ADA president Steven Powers.
Born March 18, 1949, to Irene and Ralph A. DiSaia, Ralph Nelson DiSaia excelled at tennis, basketball and football at North Kingstown High School in Rhode Island before attending Providence College, where he captained the school’s tennis team and was the Friars’ number one singles player. As a true son of the Ocean State, he loved water. He spent youthful summers on the beach in Wickford, R.I., and, with Karen, lived in a succession of houses near the shore. Active leisure suited the couple, who loved strolling the nearby dunes overlooking Long Island Sound and took annual snorkeling trips to the Caribbean, where Karen photographed a world of shimmering underwater beauty while Ralph spotted her.
Their first meeting was in 1979 at the Lyme Shores Tennis Club, where, as their adult daughter, Rachel DiSaia, an administrator at Ryerson University in Toronto, explained, Ralph quickly fell in love with Karen and her son, Adam Demorest, creative technologies manager for Cinco Design in Portland, Ore. The couple married in 1981. “Karen introduced me to antiques soon after we met. I found it interesting and enjoyed the hands-on activity. I liked the personal interaction with buyers and sellers and found the pursuit of exceptional rugs, notable for their age, design, coloration and condition, very rewarding,” Ralph once told Antiques and The Arts Weekly.
“Theirs was a home built on love and trust. You felt at peace there, even in the midst of their personal tempest,” says Jonathan G. Willen, executive director of the Washington Winter Show, who collaborated with the DiSaias on the January event at American University’s Katzen Arts Center. As Ralph’s health deteriorated, Willen made the 14-hour round-trip drive from DC to be with the DiSaias, delivering to Ralph one of his favorite Boston Crème donuts.
“For the most part, we’ve survived by humor. We’ve been through a lot, and you just have to roll with it,” Karen once told the New London Day. The DiSaias’ 36-year-old son, Logan, was born severely disabled, a challenge every member of the family met with steadfast love and compassion. Volunteerism – whether for Easterseals, The Arc and High Hopes or for the Antiques Council and the ADA – was integral to their lives. “They fought for what they believed was right, as founders, leaders and volunteers… Equity, transparency and overall human kindness were and always will be remembered as their guiding principles,” the family wrote in tribute to Ralph.
Ralph intuitively used humor to connect, bond, diffuse and motivate the disparate, unpredictable, sometimes fractious temperaments he dealt with on a daily basis, whether as a dealer, manager, parent or coach. He could charm birds out of trees, or, less probably, make tractable New York City’s truculent construction crews. “Hey Ralphie, come eat your pizza,” Karen was startled to hear a gruff crew chief say to her husband, famished after a day of show building and still out on the street directing traffic.
“You know what I loved most about Ralph? His value system. He cherished his family and friends. He never judged. He was understated and unselfish. He treated everyone the same. His work ethic was extraordinary,” says Anne Hamilton, chairman of the Newport Antiques Show and honorary chair of the Philadelphia Antiques and Art Show.
“Ralph was the highlight of many gatherings, an innovator at heart and a creative soul with a true appreciation of colors, especially if they were particularly bright ones. He is known for his never-ending ‘dad’ jokes, his use of a joke book as a dictionary, his ability to make tennis balls keep bouncing and his real-life Tetris skills. Resilient and eternally optimistic, Ralph never stopped advocating for everyone he loved to live their lives to the fullest,” the family wrote.
“With all the commotion going on in the set-up of a show, he always had something funny to say or some way to make Karen blush,” says Greg Smith, editor of Antiques and The Arts Weekly. “Ralph loved to get Karen going. At the 2018 Antiques in Manchester show, he had the entire opening gate – all packed into the St Anselm arena waiting to get into the show – sing her ‘Happy Birthday.’ There must have been 400 people.”
It was possible to interact with Ralph for decades without knowing that he was a much admired figure in the world of student tennis, a man recognized as coach of the year by the Connecticut High School Coaches Association, the Norwich Bulletin and the New London Day, which each spring hung breathlessly on Coach DiSaia’s predictions for the coming season. Congratulated on his team’s victories, he demurred, giving credit instead to his students. “I’ve never won a point. The kids do all the work,” he told Antiques and The Arts Weekly.
In 2013, The Day’s sports editor ran with the headline “Waterford Boys’ Tennis Program is One Big, Happy (Winning) Family Under DiSaia.” Ralph coached players at Connecticut College, the Saint Bernard School and at Waterford High School, where he led the Lancers from 2003 to 2019. Dedicated to the personal growth of his young charges, he was one of the first high school tennis coaches nationally to run a no-cuts program, believing that every student deserved a chance to play and the opportunity to learn. “He was and forever will be my favorite coach, a mentor and a friend. He helped me through challenges on and off the court. I am where I am today because of him,” a former student, now in his 30s, recently wrote Karen.
Ralph’s rapport with children was nowhere more evident than with his own family. “We make lots of trips to Canada to see our grandchildren, Carter and Dylan, who are incredible little people. They provide us with a sense of unconditional love and admiration, in both directions,” Ralph told us. As the days grew long last summer, Ralph taught the kids to snorkel in the backyard pool and how to swing a racket. In 2016, he jokingly told The Day that he hoped Carter, now 6, would do a “junior year abroad” in Connecticut so that he could play tennis for his grandfather at Waterford High. “That’s another 15 years,” athletic director Dave Sousa remarked at the time. “Your point?” Ralph replied.
We mourn the loss of a thoroughly good and generous man, still in his prime, with much yet to enjoy and offer others. But if we are consoled, it is by the perfection of the life Ralph and Karen built together and by the example that Ralph, ever the teacher, left us to follow. As Steve Huber put it, “Ralph has left a hole in our hearts but filled it with love.”
“Gosh, I’ll miss him,” added Jeff Cooley, speaking for us all.
Ralph is survived and lovingly remembered by his wife, Karen; sons Adam (Karly) and Logan; daughter, Rachel (Laurie); grandchildren Eero, Carter and Dylan; his beloved dog, Nellie Noodle; aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces, nephews and many dear friends.
A public celebration of Ralph’s life is planned for December 7 at 2 pm, at the Big Red Barn at Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, 305 Great Neck Road, in Waterford, Conn.
In lieu of flowers, donations in Ralph’s memory may be made to Healing Therapies Through Sharing, a new nonprofit providing a holistic approach in support of families who are dealing with cancer. Gifts may be sent to 83 Boston Post Road in Waterford, Conn., 06385.
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