I emerge from the holiday to see that Wayne Thiebaud died at 101. I attended UC Davis between 1978-83, when Thiebaud was an active part of the art department and campus life. He, with artists like sculptor Robert Arneson, painter Roland Peterson and others, made Davis a respected center of the West Coast art scene.
I didn't take a class from Thiebaud--I don't think he taught undergrads--but I know I attended the opening of at least one of his exhibitions, since attendance was part of my studio art classes' grades (I got the impression they weren't sure anybody else would show up). I'm sure I exchanged a few words with him that I don't remember. My first-hand impression confirms his reputation: he was nice, and he loved teaching. He was certainly a highly regarded artist but not quite the Great Thiebaud he would become, and it wasn't unusual to see paintings that now sell for multi-millions hanging in the Memorial Union lobby or the halls of the art building.
I can't say how many students realized they were in the presence of a great artist--probably not many--but those of us who were aware of it really appreciated it even at the time. To me, he always represented what a university was supposed to be: not just a place you went to take some classes and get a diploma, but a community where it was perfectly ordinary to see a world-class artist (or writer or physicist) pedaling a bicycle down the street, contributing to an educational and cultural environment I didn't really appreciate until I left it. Aside from a lifelong love of Thiebaud's art, that's my takeaway from his life.