East Dundee showman who spun magic from lumps of clay dies

  • A master potter for Haeger Potteries in East Dundee for 32 years, Sebastiano Maglio was a showman. He did exhibitions at the Haeger store, at trade shows, at universities and at large events, making ceramics ranging from bowls and vases to whistles for the kids.

    A master potter for Haeger Potteries in East Dundee for 32 years, Sebastiano Maglio was a showman. He did exhibitions at the Haeger store, at trade shows, at universities and at large events, making ceramics ranging from bowls and vases to whistles for the kids. Courtesy of Maglio family

  • A seventh-generation master potter in Italy, Sebastiano Maglio came to the United States in 1963 and made a name for himself here as a showman who could make anything.

    A seventh-generation master potter in Italy, Sebastiano Maglio came to the United States in 1963 and made a name for himself here as a showman who could make anything. Courtesy of Maglio family

  • Known as the "Happy Potter" and also a master potter with Haeger Pottery, Sebastiano Maglio of East Dundee created the world's largest hand-thrown vase in 1976.

      Known as the "Happy Potter" and also a master potter with Haeger Pottery, Sebastiano Maglio of East Dundee created the world's largest hand-thrown vase in 1976. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 1/17/2019 6:11 AM

As the seventh generation of his family to make a living as a potter, Sebastiano Maglio of East Dundee turned lumps of clay into vases, bowls, bottles, plates, pitchers, candleholders, boxes, figurines, animals, sculptures, children's whistles and the world's largest hand-thrown vase that stood more than 8 feet tall and weighed 650 pounds. Was there ever a time when he couldn't turn clay into whatever he dreamed?

"Never," says his widow, Concetta. "Never once."

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Maglio, 85, died Friday in his home from complications of congestive heart failure. Visitation will be held from 4 to 8 p.m. Friday at Miller Funeral Home in West Dundee, and a funeral Mass is scheduled for 10:30 a.m. Saturday at St. Catherine of Siena Church in West Dundee.

His wife of 57 years, who often goes by the nickname "Connie," thumbs through scrapbooks of newspaper clippings and photographs with their sons, Tom, 56, of Wheaton, and Angelo, 53, of East Dundee. I first mentioned Sebastiano Maglio in a 2014 column about zucchinis because he grew a 6-foot-long Sicilian zucchini that Concetta turned into her minestra di zucchini delicacy.

In 1976, master potter Sebastiano Maglio of East Dundee made the world's largest hand-thrown vase, which towered over 8 feet tall and weighed 650 pounds.
In 1976, master potter Sebastiano Maglio of East Dundee made the world's largest hand-thrown vase, which towered over 8 feet tall and weighed 650 pounds. - Courtesy of Maglio family

I dedicated an entire column in 2017 to his search for that world's largest vase. It was purchased by a woman in Ohio, who invited Maglio to visit. But his health started failing and he never made the trip.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The Maglios left their home in Santo Stefano di Camastra, a Sicilian town known for its pottery, and came to the United States in 1963 because Concetta had relatives and a job as a dressmaker at J.C. Penney in Milwaukee. His ceramic skills soon landed him a job at the well-known Haeger Potteries in East Dundee. During his 32 years with the company, which closed in 2016, Maglio was the rock star of the pottery wheel.

Married in 1961, Sebastiano and Concetta Maglio left their home in Italy for a new life in the United States in 1963. They became citizens and Sebastiano used to host trivia contests about American history.
Married in 1961, Sebastiano and Concetta Maglio left their home in Italy for a new life in the United States in 1963. They became citizens and Sebastiano used to host trivia contests about American history. - Courtesy of Maglio family

"He was hot," says son Tom, who remembers how his dad gave demonstrations in the Haeger store behind a velvet rope and also traveled around the nation to showcase his talents at universities, trade shows and department stores.

A gregarious showman, Maglio never lost his thick Italian accent.

A Haegar executive told him, "You don't need to talk. Your hands talk for you," Concetta remembers.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Son Angelo remembers the look on stunned children's faces when his dad would grab some clay and fashion a working whistle as a gift in a few seconds.

"I can make a bowl in six seconds," Maglio said in that 2017 interview. He loved that the audiences would ooh and ahh as he effortlessly turned clay into art. He often made his masterpieces on the wheel while blindfolded.

"I don't need to look. I can close my eyes and do this," Maglio said. "It's all with feel. Not too dry, not too wet."

If he ran out of clay, he'd take one of his finished pieces, point to an audience member and say, "You no like?" Then he'd crush the creation, stunning the crowd, before using the clay to make something else.

"We have yet to see anyone anywhere in the world to have his craftsmanship," Angelo says of his dad.

Part of his success came from his "Popeye forearms," Tom says. "He was very strong."

One of Sebastiano Maglio's keys to being a master potter was the strength in his forearms and hands. As a 19-year-old man in Sicily, Maglio, center, hoisted two adult relatives with ease.
One of Sebastiano Maglio's keys to being a master potter was the strength in his forearms and hands. As a 19-year-old man in Sicily, Maglio, center, hoisted two adult relatives with ease. - Courtesy of Maglio family

The sons point to an old black-and-white photograph of their 19-year-old dad on a beach in Sicily, hoisting an adult relative in each hand. They tell about how he escaped injury during a serious car crash in the era before seat belts by grabbing the metal steering wheel so tightly that he bent it with his bare hands.

He often repeated an Italian phrase that means "Any problem can be solved." He used that philosophy when he worked on the potter's wheel. His survivors say he used clay to make anything, including a good life in America.

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