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Thursday, Dec. 9, 2004 07:50 am

art seen 12-9-04

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Bob Waldmire, at the Cozy Dog: "I have roots here, but I don't get along with the climate at all"
Photo by Job Conger

In 1966, Bob Waldmire and I were enrolled at Springfield Junior College, and already he was known as an artist whose star was on the rise. And though many artists are destined to follow their stars into the sky, Bob was to follow his onto Route 66 and beyond. During a recent visit to Springfield, Waldmire recalled his career as an itinerant artist and looked ahead.

Waldmire was born in 1945 in St. Louis. His father, Edwin S. Waldmire, was a number-cruncher in the U.S. Army Air Forces who spent the immediate postwar period mustering flyboys out of the service in New Mexico. While they were waiting for his return, the family moved to Springfield. Soon after Ed Waldmire joined them here, he founded the landmark Cozy Dog Drive In on South Sixth Street. In the early 1960s, the family moved to Rochester.

Bob Waldmire's stay at SJC -- now Springfield College -- was brief. He attended Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, majoring in art and, later, zoology, and finally stopped attending in 1969.

"Before I dropped out for the last time, a fellow student made a poster map of Carbondale," he recalls. "That was the only town poster he ever made, but I liked the idea, brought it home, and made a map of Springfield using my own ideas. I did most of the artwork on it in the backroom at the old Cozy Dog. The merchants that sponsored it paid me to draw their businesses on the poster. Over the next 13 years, I made posters of 34 towns, mostly college towns, and 15 states. I really liked the idea of being my own boss. I couldn't really draw worth a damn, in my opinion, but I learned through experience. I got better with every poster I made, and I liked the gig so much I went on the road."

Waldmire's last "real job" was in 1969, when he served as night auditor/desk clerk at a Howard Johnson.

"During a family vacation in the Southwest in 1962, I fell in love with the desert, and I gravitated in that direction starting in 1970," Waldmire says. "My second town poster was made in Austin. I made posters in the Southwest, plus Georgia and Florida, during the winters. Thirty-four years later, I still live in my vehicle when I'm on the road, so it's very important that I'm in a friendly climate. I always came back to Springfield to spend time with my family. My forays on the road were usually three or four months at a time. My longest in the '80s was about 13 months. There's no way I would have been able to do what I've done without the luxury of that home base. I was always welcome to come back.

"From 1967 to 1972, I became a hippie, a recycler, and a traveling artist." For two years, Waldmire lived out of his 1965 Mustang before selling it to acquire a Volkswagen van: "I finally let go of it knowing either I would have to get a real job or sell the Mustang and get a vehicle I could live in and sell posters in." Waldmire produced a 2004 calendar commemorating 40 years of Mustangs and reports that he still has a few copies ("about 6,000") left for sale.

Waldmire's a vegan who stops frequently at Denny's to eat and to draw. "Early in my career," he recalls, "I'd have to stop at all-night restaurants or Laundromats on cold nights to keep warm, to eat, and to draw. Denny's on Stevenson Drive is my main studio. I've spent hundreds of hours there.

"There was a five-year period when I was stuck on the edge of old Route 66 in Hackberry, Ariz., operating the Old Route 66 Visitors Center, which I created. I sold it in 1998 to be close to my mom and write a book about my dad." Waldmire has purchased a homestead in southeast Arizona at the base of the Chiricahua Mountains. Long-range plans include the development of a nature preserve and artists' retreat there.

Most of Waldmire's art is for sale at Cozy Dog Drive In and at merchants along old Route 66.

Today, a much-modified school bus, which is Waldmire's road home, is parked on the grounds of Cardinal Hill Candles and Crafts, south of Rochester, which his dad founded and which is now owned and operated by his brother Bill. The 59-year-old pen-and-ink man has begun adding watercolor to his sketches, and, as the new year approaches, he's getting ready for another busy stretch on the road.

Waldmire has prepared new materials and contacted merchants along the Mother Road for orders, which he will deliver next year. "I have 19 orders to deliver on this coming trip, and I'll probably do some freelancing along the way," he says. He has just completed a map of his itinerary for 2005 describing several major events, including the Route 66 Motor Tour which will pass through Springfield June 10-12. "I'll probably be right in front of the Cozy Dog here," he says.

He's also working on plans to sell his original artwork.

But Waldmire's heart belongs to the desert. "That's the place I want to live out my life, where I want to retire from the road to," Waldmire says. "I love certain things about Illinois. I have roots here, but I don't get along with the climate at all. I do get along with the desert climate famously."

Waldmire's Web site is being revised soon to include his 2005 itinerary. "The site is maintained by Eddie Waldmire, my sister-in-law's son, and it's the only way to get a message to me when I'm on the road," he says. The address is cozydogdrivein.com/bob/schedule.html.

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