Sunday, January 10, 2010

Bob Waldmire, King of Route 66, Rolls On to that Highway in the Sky

Who is Bob Waldmire?

Ask most people where they live and they'll name a street or a town. If you'd asked Bob Waldmire where he lived, he would have said "Route 66." That was a factual statement until Dec. 16, 2009, when the self-proclaimed "hippie artist" died of abdominal cancer. He was 64.

To say that Waldmire personified the iconic two-lane road that once stretched from Chicago to Santa Monica, Calif., would be an understatement.

"He was one of the first people to recognize that the road not only needed to be preserved, but promoted," said Jerry McClanahan, author of the "EZ66 Guide for Travelers." And he did it in his own, unique way, through art.

Growing up in the 1950s, Waldmire would sit outside his parents' Springfield, Ill., drive-in restaurant, the Cozy Dog, a Route 66 landmark in its own right, and watch the cars go by. When the family, which lived in nearby Rochester, Ill., took a road trip to California in 1962 via Route 66, Waldmire fell in love with the roadside motels, diners, neon signs and—more than anything else—the desert Southwest.

When he graduated from high school, all he wanted to do was travel up and down Route 66. That cost money, but Waldmire, a gifted illustrator, found a way to support his wanderlust. He started out by going to college towns and drawing bird's-eye views that featured local businesses and landmarks. He'd get the businesses to pay upfront to be included in the illustrations, then made more money selling the finished products. Later in life he would turn his eye toward the landmarks of Route 66 and the plants and animals of his beloved Southwest. It was a business model that worked for the rest of his life.

Still don't know? Me neither. Wait a minute, here we go:
Most of that life was spent in an orange 1972 VW microbus that became a Route 66 icon itself, as famous as the Wigwam Motel in Rialto, Calif., and the Midpoint Café in Adrian, Texas. In fact, Fillmore, the VW microbus character voiced by George Carlin in the Pixar film "Cars," is loosely based on Waldmire.

Ohhhh. Bob Waldmire.

Route 66 is right here in our backyard. I'm astounded at my ignorance of its history. I'll need to do something about that.

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