To Jim, From Norman Rockwell


Nowadays, he is known as a mild-mannered, gentlemanly, just generally nice guy with a receded hairline - a sculptor who lives in suburban Adna. He is locally renowned for two works:

The graceful figure of a young man reaching for a star on the Centralia College campus, which he created in honor of his son, who died at the age of 23. The sculpture and its slogan, Reach for the Stars, is highly appropriate for a community college.

The imaginative trophy, Swampman, commissioned by The Chronicle, given for the first time last fall to the winner of the annual Centralia vs. W.F. West high school football game.

But in 1960, Jim Stafford was known by millions worldwide as a brash young ogling, winking, romantically aggressive window washer, with a luxuriant head of hair. Working on a high rise office building, he is trying to come on to an attractive young stenographer in one of the offices.

Thats all because he modeled as the central figure on a Saturday Evening Post cover, painted by Norman Rockwell. This was brought about by a one-chance-in a hundred letter that Jim, as a young soldier, wrote to America's best known artist. But let's go back to the beginning of the connection between the budding artist and the famed one.

When Jim was growing up in Adna, America's favorite magazine, The Saturday Evening Post, appeared every week in the Stafford home.

It almost always had a cover by Rockwell, depicting a somewhat idealized, but always heartwarming, aspect of American life: a country doctor holding his stethoscope to the chest of an anxious little girl's doll; a barber shop quartet in action, with the third singer being the barber and the fourth being the customer with shaving cream on his face; a boy in Huckleberry Finn garb, with his grandfather, both carrying fishing poles and heading for a pond, accompanied by their eager dog.

Young Artist Writes to Rockwell

The young Jim, wanting to be an artist himself, admired the work of Rockwell and considered him his idol.

He took some art courses from Bob Bauer while at Centralia College, and when English professor Etha Russell assigned a research paper, Jim wrote it about guess who? Of course.

Later, he took a commercial art course in Seattle and then an art correspondence course, with Rockwell as one of the consulting artists. Soon after, he was in Jackson Hole, Wyo., where he was in an art program with acquaintances of Rockwell as instructors.

So by the time he was a young soldier, stationed at Fort Devens, Mass., Norman Rockwell was an icon to the artist wannabe. Sort of like Will Rogers to me, Babe Ruth to Bill Lohr, Johnny Wooden to Ron Brown, Shakespeare to Phillip Wickstrom, Al Neuharth to Michael Wagar, Van Cliburn to Charlie Albright. Therefore, when a furlough was coming up and his Adna home was far away, why not go over to see Rockwell's studio, just across the state?

So he wrote that no-chance letter to Rockwell. What did he have to lose?

A few days later the reply came:

I'd be very glad to have you stop anytime. I'm afraid due to my heavy schedule, I can see you for only a very short visit but you are certainly welcome. … Sincerely, Norman Rockwell


It turned out to be more than just a very short visit. Jim and a soldier friend rode a train across the state to Stockbridge, the little town where Rockwell had his home and studio. At the station they were met by Rockwell's handyman, who drove them to the home.

When they were introduced to the artist, he first looked Jim over closely, and proclaimed an enigmatic, You'll do.

Jim soon learned it meant he would be just right as the central figure on the next cover Rockwell would paint.

Modeling for Rockwell's Canvas

The artist then posed the surprised model outside a window of his house and had a photographer take pictures from inside. That is how the cover was painted, from individual photographs, not from everyone assembled at once.

Thus began not just a very short visit, but a three-day stay for the two soldiers in the Rockwell home. They slept in his spare bedrooms, ate and chatted with him, and even played badminton with him (Rockwell, in his sixties, always walloped the younger competitors).

The artist even tried to set Jim up for a date with the attractive stenographer model, whom Jim hadn't met, with the use of his car, but Jim, decidedly out of character from his window washer role, turned down the chance.

More important to the budding artist, his idol critiqued his work as he drew a sketch of the other soldier.

Thus ended the dream furlough for the young soldier. After a tour of duty in Berlin, he returned to his Adna home and a career in painting, sculpting and teaching.

A copy of the original painting hangs over the fireplace in the home of director Steven Spielberg and has been shown on the television show Life Styles of the Rich and Famous. A jigsaw version of the cover has been marketed.

Jim had one more connection with America's beloved artist, who died in 1978. He received the letter on this page, but he never made the second visit.


Gordon Aadland, Centralia, was a longtime Centralia College faculty member and publicist.