Time machine: Famed illustrator Norman Rockwell found inspiration in Cedar Rapids

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Famed illustrator Norman Rockwell visited Cedar Rapids in June 1944, looking for inspiration on how he could portray Americans voting. He found what he was looking for, creating another memorable cover for the Saturday Evening Post, one of the most influential and widely circulated magazines in the nation at the time.

Rockwell had become famous after painting his “Four Freedoms” illustrations for the Post in 1943. The Post wanted him to create a cover for its presidential Election Day issue in November 1944.

Rockwell to visit Cedar Rapids during the June primary election. Rockwell and his wife, Mary, arrived in Cedar Rapids on Saturday, June 3, staying at the home of People’s Bank President Frank Welch. Rockwell and Paul Huston, a vice president at the bank, scouted locations on Sunday.

Edward F. Bernstorf, the school custodian at Cleveland, then at 1500 First Ave. West, was working at the school when the pair arrived and asked to look around.

“I went back to work,” Bernstorf recalled later. “Pretty soon, Mr. Rockwell called me down to the basement voting place and asked me if I would do something for him. I said yes. Rockwell asked me if I had a dark suit. I said yes and went home and got into it.”

Meanwhile, local photographer Wes Panek was taking photos of the voting area in Cleveland’s roomy basement for Rockwell, who created many of his illustrations working from pictures.

When Bernstorf returned, Rockwell directed him in a series of poses that Panek photographed.

‘EVERYWHERE AT ONCE’

The next day, Monday, was primary Election Day at the school, with Rockwell and the photographer given free rein to take pictures and talk to voters. Gazette reporter Dora Jane “Dodie” Hamblin — who would go on to a 25-year career with Life magazine — was on hand to record the action.

“Rockwell was everywhere at once, adjusting lights, visiting with callers, moving subjects’ heads and calling directions,” Hamblin reported. “In between times he signed autographs, visited about the coming election, commented on how much he liked Cedar Rapids, and explained gleefully that this was his first trip on an expense account and he was enjoying it tremendously.”

Hamblin said Rockwell “talks like Charlie Butterworth and looks like a country squire.” (Charles Butterworth was a 1930s actor whose unique voice was the inspiration for Quaker Oats’ Cap’n Crunch.)

One of the photos Panek took was of Iowa Gov. Bourke B. Hickenlooper, who’d opened a law practice in Cedar Rapids, and his wife, Verna.

A photo of voters lined up to register, which would become a large Rockwell watercolor, included Hamblin, who caught Rockwell’s eye. He said he liked her face and asked her to pose. In the painting, though, her face is turned away.

Panek took more photos of Bernstorf posing with an umbrella (borrowed from bank president Welch) hooked over his arm.

“He was the picture of indecision as he paused, umbrella over his arm and fingers over his mouth, with one hand on the voting lever,” Hamblin wrote. “Panek’s picture of the pose, in fact, already looked like a Rockwell cover.”

special gazette

In Rockwell’s illustration, the undecided voter is holding a copy of The Gazette — but not the one that Bernstorf was holding that day. It was a special one created just for the artist.

At Rockwell’s request, Henry J. Hromek, The Gazette’s composing room superintendent, created a special Election Day Gazette front page featuring presidential candidates Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Democratic incumbent, and Thomas Dewey, the Republican governor of New York. In addition, Rockwell wanted the front page to have six columns instead of The Gazette’s typical eight. Hromek complied, rushing the mock front page to Rockwell’s home in Arlington, Vt.

The Nov. 4, 1944, Saturday Evening Post cover carried Rockwell’s “Which One?” illustration, with a mild-mannered voter, holding the paper and carrying an umbrella. Rockwell had named the voter “Junius P. Wimple.” When the Post asked Rockwell who Junius voted for, Rockwell replied, “For the winner.”

REPRISE

Twenty years later, at age 81, Bernstorf agreed to pose again, this time for The Gazette. Once again he took a spot in a voting booth, umbrella over his arm, a perplexed look on his face. This time, he held another special Gazette with the 1964 presidential candidates, Lyndon B. Johnson and Barry Goldwater, on the front page.

He was asked the question put to Rockwell two decades before: Who was he voting for? “I’m still voting for the winner,” he replied.

He added, “I’ve waited for 20 years now for the Hollywood scouts, but nothing has ever happened.”

Bernstorf, a native of Keystone where his father managed the Keystone Mercantile, had moved to Cedar Rapids in 1942 with his wife, Ella. He died June 21, 1968, at age 85.

Rockwell, after a six-decade career as an illustrator of Americana, died Nov. 8, 1978. He was 84.

The next day, The Gazette featured the “Which One” illustration alongside the Rockwell’s obituary.

Five of Rockwell’s 1944 watercolors were given to the Cedar Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce. When they were auctioned in 2007, they were bought by the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art.

A final note: Gazette columnist Dave Rasdal reported in 2009 that the museum had discovered Rockwell had actually used a Vermont model, George Zimmer, in the “Which One?” illustration rather than the Cleveland custodian. But Cedar Rapids still provided the inspiration for a famous cover.

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