Norman Rockwell and Willie Gillis: The Saturday Evening Post covers touched real families

As an aspiring young painter I learned I could make a living as an illustrator and graphic designer early on. When ­studying illustrators, a few stood out. Norman Rockwell had already finished his stint as a cover illustrator by 1968 when the Post and many magazines switched to photography for images. But his work remains, and was instrumental in raising funds for the war effort during WW2. I am a Gillis family member, and so I took notice as a young illustrator when I began to look at the art work of Norman Rockwell, and his character called Willie Gillis.

Norman Rockwell_1942_Willie-Gillis-in-church

Norman Rockwell_1942_Willie-Gillis-in-church

Willie Gillis was a character Rockwell invented to tell a story on Post covers of  “an average Joe” who entered the army during World War 2. Rockwell’s model for Willie was Robert Buck of Vermont, and eleven covers were painted over the years. Both artist and model were later surprised at the immense popularity of the covers and Willie, who became real to many of the readers.

Willis Bruce Gillis, my grandfather, in uniform WW1

Willis Bruce Gillis, my grandfather, in uniform WW1

My Grandpa Bruce was a Presbyterian Minister, and that is how I knew him all my young life until I began to learn our family history and see the old photos which revealed his time in the service where he was a radio operator during WW1. He was flying in hot air balloons over Europe to send messages about the enemy positions below him. That amazes me. Sounds really dangerous!

Rockwell_1944_Willie-Gillis_Generations

Rockwell_1944_Willie-Gillis_Generations

I love this cover with the imaginary family images of Willie Gillis and his ancestors who fought in the nation’s history. I was born and raised as Karen Gillis, and my great Aunt Lois was the one who studied our own family history. We could only wish that Aunt Lois turned up the many books at the bottom of the Rockwell illustration with his titles: Victory with GILLIS, Great American Heroes, The Gillis Family Geneology, Gillis at Valley Forge, The History of the United States and the GILLIS FAMILY, Gillis at Gettysburg, and finally, Gillis with LINCOLN. Oh the power of the illustrator, who gets to make things up, with humor and exaggeration.

J.C. Leyendecker, Saturday Evening Post illustration

J.C. Leyendecker, Saturday Evening Post illustration

As a young illustrator, I became enamored more with J.C. Leyendecker’s illustrations, and loved his brushwork and style. He and Rockwell were cover artists for the Saturday Evening Post before photography became the visual element it is today in all magazines and online works. This image shows emotion and tells a story. It’s about generations and service.

Willis Bruce Gillis II, my uncle, 1945, Bassingbourne England, WW2

Willis Bruce Gillis II, my uncle, 1945, Bassingbourne England, WW2

My Uncle Bruce Jr. was in the Army Air Force, a radio-gunner on a B-17, doing bombing runs over Germany.  He made 39 runs. He was stationed north of London, in the Cambridge area. My aunt Roberta, his wife, tells me that in his free time, he used to sneak away on his bicycle to a nearby pub and play piano and lead singing the pub songs, which cheered many of the folks up for a time. Then he would ride the bike back to the base. That truly sounds like my dear Uncle Bruce.

B-17 Plane, Bassingborne, England, WW2

B-17 Plane, Bassingborne, England, WW2

Willie Gillis in College, Rockwell, 1946

Willie Gillis in College, Rockwell, 1946

The Saturday Evening Post cover just after Germany surrendered to the Allies, and ending the war, shows a Willie Gillis back home and studying at college. We forget sometimes that so many of our soldiers were in their teens and early twenties when they went overseas to defend Europe and our allies. My uncle Bruce was one who came home to finish his education and study law in Indiana. That’s where he met my Aunt Roberta, also a law student. Then they married and had 2 children, my cousins Bruce the 3rd, and Colleen.

The Golden Rule, Norman Rockwell illustration

The Golden Rule, Norman Rockwell illustration

The Golden Rule is the subject of this Norman Rockwell illustration. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” I don’t know the story behind this illustration of Rockwell’s, but I do like that he was not afraid to make his artwork supportive of certain values we can all learn about and embrace. Maybe the pendulum will swing back to those values of the earlier decades of our nation and world when our moral compasses were more clear cut. Good and evil, take a stand for what is right.

Jesus said to love others as yourself. That is the big challenge, that is what could end wars, but that has not been the way of human history. Yet, I’m thankful for the men and women who stepped out to serve that ideal, who believed that their true cause was about the greater good to allow that ideal to exist.

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4 Responses to “Norman Rockwell and Willie Gillis: The Saturday Evening Post covers touched real families”

  1. Nancy Says:

    I so enjoyed reading about your family and seeing Rockford’s Gillis series.

    Like

  2. Sarah Schultz Says:

    My father, my stepfather were both in the Army during WW11. I was in the AF, along with my husband, my 2 brother-in-laws and my sister-in-law during the 1960’s. Yes I too enjoyed your writings about your relatives and N. Rockwell. Life has changed in the world in many ways. If war could be obsolete….wishful thinking!
    Sarah

    Like

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