You could not categorize Bob Waldmire just as you cannot stereotype Route 66.
The migratory road is more than vintage jukeboxes and antique cars. It is about everyone, or at least anyone who has dreamed of a rainbow on a western horizon. Mr. Waldmire was an artist-gypsy-raconteur who was born in St. Louis and grew up near Route 66 in Springfield, Ill. He died Wednesday in Rochester, about 10 miles southeast of Springfield. Mr. Waldmire lost a battle with cancer. He was 64.
I visited with Mr. Waldmire three or four times over the years, the last time being in early November. He was in repose on a cot in the 1966 school bus he converted into cozy living quarters. My intention was to talk about his life and Route 66. But just as in all our other visits, Mr. Waldmire began by talking about birds.......
........He asked me to feed the birds outside his bus. He knew all their names. He could tell you how the pintail duck flies over Route 66 on its migration from Alaska to Central America. In 2001 Mr. Waldmire was asked by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to create 24 wildlife drawings to be used for educational programs at the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie near Joliet and the Chautauqua National Wildlife Refuge near Havana, Ill. He loved drawing his Great Blue Heron and Spotted Sandpipers.
He was free.
Now this is a true story:
Since 1997 I have driven more than 150,000 miles for my Sun-Times travel column. I never had an accident. On Wednesday morning I was driving down the Eisenhower Expressway on route to St. Louis for a story. A flock of birds flew in front of my car. I hit one. The small bird hit my grill like the morning sun and it crashed to the side of the road.
A couple of hours later I was at the Palms Cafe on Route 66 in Atlanta, Ill., south of Bloomington.
That's when I heard the news about Mr. Waldmire.
I'm not spiritual unless it comes to dead announcers blessing the Chicago Cubs, but after hearing of Mr. Waldmire's passing I sat in my car and composed myself. I thought about his birds. Then I considered how Mr. Waldmire had the same incongruity I love in people like Bill Veeck, Bill Murray and others who zig when you say zag.
In the mid-1940s Mr. Waldmire's father Ed invented the deep fried corn dog, known as the "Cozy Dog" in Springfield.
So Mr. Waldmire--a vegan--invented a meatless version of the Cozy Dog. Mr. Waldmire would bring his own vegan hot dogs to the Cozy Dog Drive-In, 2935 S. 6th St. in Springfield (217-525-1992).
"Those wildlife drawings?," asked Mr. Waldmire's brother Buz during a Friday conversation. "That was a negotiated sentence with the Illinois DNR (Dept. of National Resources)."
Buz Waldmire owned and operated the Cozy Dog in September, 2000 when Mr. Waldmire brought in a pair of pet rattlesnakes from Arizona to Springfield. "He asked if I would mind if we displayed them at the Cozy Dog," Buz recalled. "I thought that would be great. In 1964 in the original Cozy Dog restaurant we displayed tarantulas, rattlesnakes and scorpions from one of his desert trips. That was before all these dangerous animal acts."
So Mr. Waldmire built a safe, tamper proof wood and plexiglass cage for his rattlesnakes. "The police liked them and the customers liked them until one Saturday morning when I was cooking doughnuts," Buz said. "A woman was eating breakfast with her two kids. One boy came back from the bathroom and said, 'Hey mom! There's rattlesnakes here!' She stood up, grabbed her two kids and raced out of the restaurant."
Buz didn't think much of the quick exit until about a half hour later when authorities made a quick entry.
"A swat team descended on the place," Buz said. 'They had riot gear on. They posted an armed guard by the snakes. It was kind of comical. They didn't threaten to arrest me and they were very polite. They didn't know what they were going to walk into.
"They tried to get Bob on harboring an endangered species---except the rattlesnakes were the western variety and they were not endangered. They did nail him on the dangerous animal thing." Mr. Waldmire went before Federal Magistrate Judge Byron Cudmore in Jan. 2001 and was ordered to provide his artistic talents to the wildlife service. The snakes were turned over to the DNR and became property of its National Heritage Program. Buz chuckled and said, "We got newspaper and radio publicity--and it was good for business for several weeks."
While living in Hackberry, Az. in 1997 Mr. Waldmire had planned an "Old 66 Hike-In Theatre" where films would be screened on an abandoned cooler during starlit summer nights. He shelved the project to devote more time to his sketches, postcards and his Route 66 visitors center in Hackberry.
Yes, Mr. Waldmire was impatient with myopic vision.
He shared his abundance of dreams in his detailed R. Crumb influenced sketches (check this blog's Nov. 6 archive for more on Mr. Waldmire). Even though he was fading during my November visit, Mr. Waldmire still gathered enough energy to wander out to his cluttered '65 Mustang "Fastback 2 + 2" to try to locate some sketches.
He glanced at his birds clustered together on a birdhouse in a late autumn chill. "Chickadees, blue jays, gold finches and cardinals of course," he said with a satisfied smile. "Birds have been one of the great highlights of my life."
And then the wise man closed his eyes.
Mr. Waldmire is survived by his son Jimmy Graham, his brothers Bill, Buz, Jeff and Tom and two grandchildren. Mr. Waldmire requested his body be cremated and his ashes spread on Route 66. A Celebration of Life in Mr. Waldmire's honor will be held from Noon-2 p.m. Sunday at the Wilson Park Funeral Home in Rochester (just south of Springfield). Expect some vintage Jethro Tull and maybe some Doors music to be played. In lieu of flowers, memorials can be sent to the "Robert Waldmire Trust" in care of the Rochester State Bank, 133 N. John St., Rochester, Ill. 62563.
FINALLY, when I returned to Chicago late Thursday I received several e-mails about Mr. Waldmire's latest transition.
Here is one from Route 66 author/NPR contributor Tim Steil I would like to share:
"You Just Missed Him."
Meeting Bob Waldmire was a little strange for me. I had been looking for him for almost a year, and no matter where I went or who I called, I got a variation on the same answer.
"He just passed through a coupla days ago."
"Oh Bob? Yeah he was here a while back."
"Waldmire? Well if you see him tell him to come finish painting this damned thing he started." Mostly it came down to the same words over and over again.
"You just missed him."
Bob was on the road, and it was there I found him. The big grin comes walking across the courtyard in Albuquerque at an Artists and Authors Fair. From everything I had seen in the movies, usually when a guy is coming at you that kind of look on his face, he is about to stab you. Bob shook my hand, and complimented me on my T-Shirt, which he had drawn. My first thoughts on seeing him were pretty much this, "Holy Crap that guy looks exactly like Bob Waldmire!"
* * *
I won't even try to do justice to the legacy of this man. The sheer amount of good karma he sent up and down Route 66, whether it was dispensed out of the side of an old VW van on a street corner somewhere, or shared over a cup of coffee and some solar-baked vegetarian pizza down in Hackberry, is immeasurable.
I have some Bob stories, from all up and down the road. I think my second favorite is this. One night sitting on a street corner outside his van, sharing a bowl of almonds and dried fruit, he just sort of leaned over, looked from side to side like he was checking for witnesses, and says, "I had a beer last night!" I wish you could have seen the you-know-what eating grin on his face when he said it.
In many ways, Bob was a teacher, about all things Route 66, and about life in general. This is what he taught me.
Shortly after September 11th, 2001 I received a package from Bob. There was a very nice note, a new issue of his Route 66 News; with directions to his mountain home should I care to visit, and something that just blew my mind.
It was an incredibly detailed map of the Middle East, I think from Saudi Arabia to Afghanistan. All the towns were in proper Arabic spelling. It was nothing he was doing for profit really, but just an artist's response to war. It just spoke volumes to me. In a strange way it was like I could suddenly see and understand the ridiculousness of the whole adventure. When I opened that map, it was roughly the same as when my high school English teacher explained a story to me, and I saw the logic of symbolism. In both those instances, I opened not only a book or a map, but my eyes, my mind, and my heart.
Bob Waldmire opened my eyes to the world of art. He showed me how an artist can make a statement without saying a word. In a few simple words, in a few wonderful drawings, this man enriched my life in a way I wish I could repay properly. The world is a richer place for his having been here, and a poorer place for his leaving.
* * *
You just missed him. Bob was on the road for a long time, and in my heart I'm sure he's going to be on the road for a lot longer. As per his wishes, there will be a little of Bob all up and down Route 66. He will be in that warm wave that crashes over your ankles in Santa Monica, the stuff that makes you sneeze in Chicago, and that gunk that you can't get off your windshield in Tulsa.
There are those of you who have known him longer, and better. I envy you. I really do.
Still I will always be proud to call myself his friend, and I will just miss him. I wish I could see that grin again, but like everyone who ever met him, I know he will always be with me, that warm breeze down my back as I turn up the radio and head West. -- ts.