Route 66 in the News
Route 66 Artist Says Farewell
CHICAGO, Ill. - Out there on Route 66, among the desert rats and yodelers, bluegrass musicians and storekeepers, artist Bob Waldmire found a home in a life that defied settling down.
For some 40 years, he lived the Mother Road's itinerant ideal, defined its congenial ethos and, say Route 66 aficionados still learning of his death, left a body of art as iconic as the route that inspired it.
Mr. Waldmire, 64, the restless illustrator who created a wealth of emblematic images of Route 66, surpassed only by the extensive network of friendships forged along its shoulders, diner counters and rest stops, ran out of road Wednesday, Dec. 16, in a bedroom of his brother's farmhouse in Rochester, Ill. The cause was abdominal cancer, his brother Bill said.
Mr. Waldmire's friend Michael Wallis, the Route 66 author, likened the illustrator to "the Johnny Appleseed of the Mother Road." Jim Conkle, who helped engineer the route's resurgence with counsel and encouragement from Mr. Waldmire, called him "a legend." Talking to a reporter for a Tribune story that ran a month before his death, Mr. Waldmire called himself a "lovable cuss."
The documentable facts about his life are agreeably brief, leaving room for the charming anecdotes now in wide circulation. Mr. Waldmire was born in St. Louis but grew up in Springfield, where, as fate would have it, his father, Ed, had a diner on the original Route 66.
As a boy in the 1950s, he saw the comings and goings of cars with license plates from places like California and Oklahoma. On a 1962 family vacation to California, he stared out the car windows at the desert, and that was pretty much that.
"He got locked onto the deserts and snakes and lizards and stuff and stayed there the rest of his life," Bill Waldmire said. Eventually, Mr. Waldmire homesteaded in Arizona. But his home was always the road. The engine propelling him on his adventures was art.
Working an ingenious angle, he drew bird's-eye-view posters of 34 cities and college towns, getting paid by businesses first to be included in the drawings, then for copies of the finished posters. His drawings include the Wigwam Motel in Rialto, Calif.; Steve's Cafe in Chenoa, Ill.; and the Edsel graveyard in Shamrock, Texas. He later added wildlife to his postcards and posters. Artistically, it was solid work and, from Mr. Waldmire's point of view, also something like a scam.
"The main reason I became a traveling artist was to avoid having a real job," he told the Tribune this fall. "It was about being free to move. Wanderlust."
He was never one for joining things, Conkle admitted. But in his attempt to unplug, he joined a burlesque show of characters on the Mother Road that included Ron Jones, the Oklahoma man with 74 tattoos -- 73 of them depicting Route 66; Dean Walker, the Kansan who can turn his feet backward and did it on "The Tonight Show" once; and Fran Hauser, who keeps the Midpoint Cafe in Adrian, Texas, open during blizzards. For a while, even Mr. Waldmire ran a general store on Route 66 in Arizona, where Conkle first met him in the mid-1990s.
"I thought, 'He's right out of central casting,' " Conkle said. "The last of the original hippies."
Mr. Waldmire would give up the store for the road again, but Conkle -- then organizing a movement to promote Route 66 -- kept running into him. They had oatmeal and tea at Denny's at 2 a.m. At lunch, they shared peanut butter and honey sandwiches, Mr. Waldmire's favorite. They pulled over when they saw one another on the open road. Mr. Waldmire started calling Conkle "Mr. Serendipity" and then started using his enormous good will along the route to promote Conkle's efforts.
This year, Conkle, Wallis and Rick Freeland formed the national Route 66 Alliance; Mr. Waldmire was its first member. When the group's interpretive center is finished in Tulsa, Okla., Mr. Waldmire's orange 1972 Volkswagen microbus will be a star attraction. The van by itself is famous. This year, Pixar confirmed that Mr. Waldmire and his microbus had partially inspired the hippie VW van character in its animated movie "Cars."
By then, the people who knew Route 66 best agreed that Mr. Waldmire was inexorably part of it.
"It's much more than nostalgia and gimmicks. It's more than poodle skirts and James Dean and '57 Chevys. It's a mirror of the nation. It has bluebloods and rednecks, red states, blue states and cross-pollination," Wallis said of the Mother Road and Mr. Waldmire's love affair with it. "He saw Route 66 for a metaphor, a symbol for much more than the dimensions for that linear village. He knew it symbolized a lot of what had been lost and sometimes found in this country."
He is survived by his son, Jimmy Graham; his brothers Bill, Buz, Jeff and Tom; and two grandchildren.
His memorial will be held from noon until 2 p.m. Sunday in the Wilson Park Funeral Home in Rochester. He will be cremated. Half the ashes will be buried beside his parents' in Rochester. In accordance with his written instructions, the other half will go to friends. He asked them to scatter them along Route 66.
~James Janega, Chicago Tribune