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Bob Waldmire has died December 16, 2009

Posted by Ron Warnick in Art, People.
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Bob Waldmire, a beloved Route 66 artist and self-avowed hippie who also was the unofficial inspiration to Fillmore in the movie “Cars,” died at 8:30 a.m. today, according to a news release from Michael Wallis, co-director of the Route 66 Alliance.

Waldmire, 64, had been battling cancer.

More on this is coming tonight, when I have time to assemble the information.

UPDATE: Wallis and Alliance co-director Jim Conkle visited Waldmire less than a week before he died. Waldmire was being cared for by his brother and hospice nurses near his hometown of Springfield, Ill.

Wallis wrote today:

“We are so grateful that we were able to be at Bob’s side last week and have a final visit with our dear friend … Any time spent with Bob was quality time. He will be missed but yet he leaves behind a vast legacy of art that has has made a global audience aware of the importance of Route 66 and everything the venerable highway stands for and represents.

“If anyone person most typifies the spirit and determination that keeps Route 66 alive and has put the famous highway back on so many maps, it has to be Bob Waldmire. [...] He is a poet with a sketch pad. Bob is the conscience of all road warriors out on the old road.”

Sue Waldmire, Bob’s sister-in-law and owner of the Cozy Dog Drive-In in Springfield, said Bob died “peacefully.” That report was echoed by Dave Bakke of the Springfield State Journal-Register, one of the first media outlets to report Waldmire’s death. In fact, Bakke had talked to Waldmire the day before, who was planning a party with friends and family on Thursday.

Bob’s brother, Buz, said much of the family was around him Tuesday night. “He was lucid and alert until about 11:30 when he took his medication to go to sleep. He never woke up, but he passed peacefully and happily.”

Here’s a very good blog post by Journal-Register photographer David Spencer about Waldmire, including photos from 1991. Remarkably, Waldmire didn’t look much different 18 years ago than before his terminal illness.

Bob was one of the most unconventional people I had ever met up to that point in my journalism career. [...] He struck me as being completely satisfied with what I would describe as a spartan existence. With an oil lamp and healthy supply of rapidograph-style calligraphy pens at his side, Bob worked into the night creating artwork of his beloved Route 66 and his many travels on it.

This was posted on Route 66 News earlier. But, if you missed it, here’s a Chicago Tribune video of Bob in the final weeks of his life:

Here’s a Flickr photo collection of Waldmire, his vehicles and his work.

Waldmire had traveled Route 66 for more than three decades. But he really gained international attention when he owned the Hackberry General Store in Hackberry, Ariz., for five years. He eventually sold the store, which is still operating as a vital Route 66 attraction, and built a winter home in the mountains of southern Arizona.

But his celebrity continued to grow, culminating with him winning the prestigious John Steinbeck Award at the annual Steinbeck Awards Dinner in 2004. And he served as the unofficial inspiration to the VW minibus named Fillmore in the 2006 animated hit movie “Cars” by Disney-Pixar. The minibus originally was going to be named Waldmire, but Bob refused to let it be called that because toys bearing his name would have been placed in McDonald’s Happy Meals, violating his vegetarian principles. Bob’s decision potentially kept him from lucrative earnings, but he was firm about the decision and expressed no regrets about it.

From left, Bob Waldmire, Carol Duncan, Emily Priddy and Ron Warnick at the Ray's Motel repainting project in Clinton, Okla., in 2007. (Photo by Ace Jackalope)

Waldmire was well-known for being a devoted environmentalist and vegan. He gently admonished travelers to look out for animals while driving. He wandered up and down the Mother Road, mostly in a vintage Volkswagen minibus (fitted with a solar panel for auxiliary power, naturally), and scratched out a living selling his intricate pen-and-ink drawings, especially at Route 66 gatherings.

His artwork, which bears a resemblance to Robert Crumb‘s, hangs in many homes across the globe, including mine. The Volkswagen and its contents will eventually have a permanent home in Tulsa at the Route 66 Experience museum, which is in the process of being designed. His artwork also is being organized by his family to preserve his legacy and to possibly fund an art scholarship.

And you never knew when and where Waldmire would turn up. He ran on his own loosely organized schedule. So meeting him was an unexpected treat. I remember running into him in the now-closed Hillbillee’s restaurant in Arcadia, Okla., and buttonholing him about the “Cars” decision. He answered those questions in his usual laid-back and patient manner.

Sue Waldmire e-mailed this information after Bob’s death:

The family asked that I let everyone know that there will be a Celebration of Life on Sunday December 20th from 12-2 p.m. at Wilson Park Funeral Home in Rochester, Illinois. In lieu of flowers memorials made be sent to the “Robert Waldmire Trust” and sent to the Rochester State Bank 133 N. John St. Rochester, Illinois, 62563. Thank you for all your prayers and support in our time of need.

It’s fitting that Bob Waldmire would have eschewed flowers for his funeral. After all, growing such flowers isn’t environmentally friendly.

Bob said he wanted to be cremated, with half his ashes interred at the Waldmire family plot and the other half scattered along several select spots on Route 66, including off the Santa Monica Pier.

Before closing, I wanted to tell this story that Wallis told me after visiting Waldmire for what he knew almost certainly would be the last time.

Wallis said he didn’t cry in front of Waldmire, partly because Waldmire admonished him not to do it. But, also, Wallis said a memory kept coming to him about the last time he and his wife Suzanne visited with an old and infirm Lillian Redman, the longtime beloved owner of the historic Blue Swallow Motel in Tucumcari, N.M.

Wallis said Suzanne began to cry in front of Redman. When Lillian asked why, Suzanne said it was because she wasn’t sure whether she would see Redman again.

“Darling, you’ll always see me,” Redman replied. “You’ll always see me on the road. You’re going to see me in all the old familiar places.”

With that memory lodged in his mind, Wallis, a former Marine, hugged Waldmire for the last time and said: “I’ll see you in all the old familiar places. Semper Fi.”

Waldmire smiled and replied: “Semper Fi.”

“That’s how I’ll remember him,” Wallis said.

UPDATE2: An obituary for Waldmire by the Journal-Register is here. A map to the funeral home in Rochester is here.

UPDATE3: The Chicago Tribune posted a good profile on Waldmire on Friday.

UPDATE4: Longtime roadie Dave Hoestra of the Chicago Sun-Times posted his musings about Waldmire on his Scratch Crib blog, including a great letter by Tim Steil.

UPDATE5: Redforkhippie drew this tribute to Waldmire on her blog:

(Photo of Bob Waldmire by Emily Priddy)

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