Thomas Wilson Dibblee Hoyt: 1950-2021
Dibblee Hoyt reveled in motorcycles, cameras and other contrarians, all of which came to light in 1988 during his epic 4,000-mile journey across Russia astride a BMW touring bike. The saga of this trip fused his loves of adventure and cheekiness as he rode wildly along Russian highways and posed with his bike on the steps of the Kremlin amid skeptical authorities and onion domes.
Dibblee first learned to ride as a young teenager in the early 1960s from his mother’s cousin, Frederica Dibblee Poett, in Rancho San Julian, where their family had raised cattle since 1817. Frederica left Dibblee, his brother Clay and his sister Antonia pick up the mail from the box on Rural Road One near Jalama – and generally frolic – on his green Vespa scooter. The young Hoyts brought their driving skills home to Mission Canyon and their friends from the Frost, Bottoms, Graham, de L’Arbre and Forsell families, expanding their playgrounds from Rocky Nook Park and Mission Creek to the streets of Santa Barbara on little Hondas they rented near East Beach for $5/day.
Thomas Wilson Dibblee Hoyt, “Dibblee” to his friends and “Lee” to his family, began life at Cottage Hospital in 1950 as the son of Virginia Dibblee Hoyt and Robert Ingle Hoyt. His father was a renowned architect who designed many homes and buildings, including the Santa Barbara Historical Museum adjacent to the presidio where Don José de la Guerra y Noriega served as commanding officer in the 1800s. Dibblee’s two maternal grandparents were great-grandchildren of Don José.
Dibblee attended Roosevelt Elementary School and then Dunn’s School in Los Olivos. Dibblee and two friends once predicted that the easiest way to get booze and ice cream would be to steal them from a neighbor. Their scheme went wrong. From the back seat of a police cruiser, Dibblee helpfully explained that his father was the architect who designed Juvenile Hall, to which the officer driving replied, “So you’ll feel right at home there. .” Dibblee’s father refused to have him released until the following day, explaining that a night as an inmate was reasonable punishment.
Dibblee moved to Menlo Park to study journalism and graphic design at Menlo College, although his friend John Chase reports that Dibblee’s de facto valedictorian went to Hollywood for weekend parties. After a few years Dibblee moved back to Santa Barbara and together with John rented a cabin just below City College. John recalls Dibblee driving his British racing green MGC six-cylinder roadster “like a rabid dog” and taking his “annoyance to passionate levels” at this time.
Dibblee and John shared priorities – they kept several motorcycles in the kitchen. With easy access to the railroad across the street, they traveled miles along the tracks unhindered by traffic lights and stop signs. Once, while riding home beside the rails on a particularly noisy Ossa Pioneer 250 dirt bike, Dibblee was chased by a deputy. Near Las Positas Road, Dibblee’s skill at riding sharp gravel surpassed that of the officer, who fell and cut his knees as Dibblee escaped in the resulting cloud of profanity.
John began manufacturing motorcycle luggage in a bedroom on the Mesa and later in a basement production facility in Montecito. The success of his products led to the Chase Harper Company, where Dibblee wrote the copy and handled shipping and receiving, although his stated job was the company photographer.
Dibblee’s interest in photography began at the age of 6, when his father gave him a lightweight Kodak Signet camera. Dibblee learned to develop and print his images in a darkroom converted from a bomb shelter and later recounted that “it…started a long love affair with capturing images”.
In his thirties, Dibblee moved to a dilapidated 1910 two-room house with boards and battens in the San Julian, where he shot its former residents, wood rats, from his bed with a .22 pistol. He has written articles for 2 free wheels motorcycle magazine and put his photography skills to work for ranchers and cowboys. He became famous for capturing images up close and from unexpected angles during roundups and brandings.
Dibblee also caught the eye of Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria, who asked him in 2002 to teach photography. The Santa Ynez Valley Historical Museum and the Lompoc Museum have exhibited his work; of the latter’s “Ranch Shots” exhibition, Bob Isaacson wrote that Dibblee’s photographs “have a surprising authenticity, freshness and originality”. In 2005, his success with students led him to receive the Allan Hancock Part-Time Teaching Excellence Award.
One student, Lynda Schiff, recalls: “Dibblee organized field trips that encouraged students to explore their own backyards…once he showed us some great photos he had taken during the Solstice Parade – he advised us to forget the crowds, be bold, and take action as if we were meant to be there.
When Dibblee was in his late 50s, his friends and students noticed that he was changing, both in personality and in gait – he seemed forgetful and even more rambunctious. He was eventually diagnosed with a malicious form of multiple sclerosis for which there was no cure.
The Santa Barbara Arts Commission quickly organized a juried retrospective exhibition of photographs of Dibblee and his students to celebrate his art and the many students he mentored. In a review of this 2013 show, W. Dibblee Hoyt: awayone reviewer praised the “innovative and satisfying exhibit”.
Despite his advanced motor impairment, which left his BMW K75 and helmets gathering dust, Dibblee continued to live on the San Julian, where he died aged 71 on December 16.