Sidney Markman

Sidney David Markman, Oct. 10, 1911 Jan. 27, 2011 Family: Wife, Malvina, children, Sarah, Alexander and Charles

Sidney D. Markman had two ways of traveling the world: in person and through books.

As a child growing up in a Jewish enclave of Brooklyn, he ventured along the Silk Road in the pages of Marco Polo's memoirs. As an old man, he took journeys through the words of scholars who wrote about the growth of cities and civilizations.

In between, he traveled by foot, boat, train and car. He started in Greece, the birthplace of Western civilization. Later, he hiked through Panama, Mexico, Colombia, Ecuador and Guatemala. Finally, he spent time in Spain, the civilization that gave birth to the New World.

By the time he died, at age 99, he had outlived his wife of 64 years, Malvina, and his daughter, Sarah, who died of cancer. But even in his final years, he remained curious and inquisitive about life.

At 90, he announced to his granddaughter, Eva Melamed of Raleigh, he was giving up fiction. His time was running out, and there was just too much still to learn about this world from nonfiction accounts.

His last three years he lived alone, but remained active, befriending his housekeeper so he could keep up his Spanish, and creating a Facebook profile so he could chat with friends.

"I don't want to become young," he told a newspaper reporter in 2004. "I want to become older. That means to live."

The longer he lived, the more enthralled he grew with history. His last book, published when he was 92, was especially personal. "Jewish Remnants in Spain" is an account of the Jewish synagogues, gates, street signs and inscriptions attesting to the once vibrant Jewish community of Spain before it was forcibly expelled in 1492. Over 30 years, Markman trekked through dozens of Spanish cities and towns unearthing these forgotten artifacts. When he came across a church that once served as a synagogue, he felt obliged to step inside and recite the Jewish prayer of mourning, the Kaddish.

"You're not just digging artifacts," he once said. "You're digging up people. This is where they used to daven (or pray)."

Markman earned a doctorate from Columbia University in art history and archaeology. For his dissertation on the horse in Greek art, he traveled throughout Greece with a tape measure in his pocket.

In 1941, the year he graduated, World War II was in full swing, and jobs were scarce. He took a position at the University of Panama. There was only one problem: He didn't know Spanish.

His first semester, he hired someone to help translate his lectures and wore out a primer, "Paso a Paso," he picked up in New York. Six months after he arrived, he said, he was fluent.

Summers he traveled throughout Central America. He was in Guatemala when he came across a Jewish tailor who invited him to meet his niece, a woman named Malvina. A college student studying in the U.S., Malvina wasn't there to meet him on his first trip. But Markman was sufficiently intrigued by her family to return the following year.

Sidney and Malvina were married in 1945. Meanwhile, Markman began to research what would become his lifelong academic specialty, Spanish colonial art and architecture.

"Back then, the field was very Euro-centric," said Humberto Rodriguez-Camilloni, friend, colleague and professor of architectural history at Virginia Tech. "He contributed to legitimizing the study of Latin American colonial art. It was a topic virtually ignored."

In 1947, Duke University offered him a position as professor of art and archaeology and the Markmans made Durham their home. With the help of his father, a contractor, Markman designed and built a frame house with cypress wood siding in Durham's Trinity Park. There the couple reared three children: Sarah, Alexander and Charles. Besides teaching and traveling, Markman loved to paint, especially in watercolor.

He retired from Duke in 1981, but never from his work or from a life of learning.

Ever the scholar, Markman helped catalogue and digitize thousands of archival documents of Guatemala's Spanish colonial period, especially purchases of land and contracts.

Many universities now use those catalogues as a newer generation of scholars relies on his meticulous groundwork, said Rodriguez-Camilloni.

In 2006, he organized an exhibit of 126 of his watercolors to benefit the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina. The sale of the landscapes raised enough money for nearly 29,000 meals. When a TV reporter came by and marveled at his stamina, he launched into one of his life lessons.

"Life is an obligation," he said in his deep bass voice. "We're not here to die slowly. We're here to live."