Cerro Gordo County Iowa
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 The Globe-Gazette
Mason City, Cerro Gordo County, Iowa
Friday, November 11, 2016

St. Ansgar World War II vet is lifetime artist
by Deb Nicklay

ST. ANSGAR — When Keith Roll was fighting on the world stage during World War II, his thoughts were never far from his home in St. Ansgar and his loved ones — and he drew many an illustration to prove it.

Letter upon letter was sent to his late wife, Alice, during his military service. Although he could not tell her where he was stationed, he often drew intricate images upon his envelopes that provided certain clues to his whereabouts. He sketched scenes from the battles he witnessed. Ultimately, this veteran was not only recording history but honing skills that would take him through a lifetime as an artist.

Although Roll, who has lived in Norfolk, Nebraska, since 1950, has lived away from his hometown for many years, he has kept in contact with some of his friends there. Several of his drawings and war envelopes survive and are kept at the St. Ansgar Heritage Association and Museum — and some are even held in the Admiral Nimitz Museum in Fredericksburg, Texas.

Roll, 98, had no formal art training, although he recalls “sketching dexterity for me was when my second-grade teacher in a one-room school two miles south of Manly insisted there was only one correct way to hold a pen. Today, it tugs my heart when I see young and old hold a ballpoint pen like it is a concrete chisel or a hammer handle,” Roll wrote in a letter, describing his early days.

His first professional work came from a grocery store owner in St. Ansgar, who hired Roll to paint the lettering for his sale items, painted on his store’s exterior windows. Kids walking by would draw their fingers through the lettering and ruin the copy. Roll offered to re-letter the sign and the owner was impressed.

When the boys did it again, Roll suggested to the owner that he could paint the lettering from the inside — requiring him to paint letters backward. The owner was delighted with the result, knowing his advertising was now safe from mischief. He paid Roll in groceries.

Roll recalled that 52 years later he was still being called upon for that exact same talent.

“I lettered and painted religious art, all backwards, inside, on glass, for a new Lutheran church in Texas.”

By the time the Roll was in high school, Miss Gibson, his English and dramatics teacher, kept him busy “doing designs and sketches for programs, plays and other theatrics, plus painting scenery for back drops for plays and programs,” he wrote.

After his 1936 graduation and until he entered the Army in March 1941, Roll worked at the Champlin Service Station — still painting signs. When he began his service, he initially served in the 14th Calvary, one of the last horse units in the U.S. Army.

His unit patrolled the border between Mexico and the U.S., since Mexico had not in the war’s first year declared its allegiance to the U.S. As a result, Mexico was considered a potential enemy.

Once Mexico became part of the Allied Forces, Roll and his unit became part of the new 776th Amphibious Tank Battalion, which served in the South Pacific. As part of Bravo Company, he was in the first wave in the invasion of the Philippines at Leyte Gulf in 1944. He used his talents to sketch what he saw happening on those beaches. In an article in the Norfolk Daily News in 1991, he said his stop to sketch the scene delayed his own departure, jumping on his unit’s last boat to shore. Army censors, however, took his sketches from him but returned them five years later. His unit was also part of the invasion of Okinawa.

Soon after the invasion of the Philippines and his first action sketch, he started a news sheet called “The Spirit of ’76.” Its original purpose was to inform fellow soldiers about world events, Roll wrote.

“But the men preferred sketches and looked forward to what they called “cartoons and lies, but none would give up their copy,” he added.

“Throughout my army life I sketched pictures of wives, sweethearts, etc., for birthdays, anniversaries … we have seen several (in later years) with emotional remembrances.” He stayed in touch with children and grandchildren of some of the men.

The curator at the Admiral Nimitz Museum said his sketches represented “a unique type of originality” unlike any other non-commissioned combat art.

Roll and Alice moved to Norfolk after the war where Roll was employed at the Norfolk Daily News. He worked in the art and advertising department for 30 years. His entry into the business was not friendly at first. The company was planning its largest issue ever printed; after that business planned to separate the growing printing business from the news side of things. Roll was hired was a graphic artist, but before the separation took place, he was to work in the advertising department. He was not welcomed with open arms. His colleagues gave him accounts that never advertised, or even disliked the newspaper.

“I decided that I had to do it by artwork, (so) I picked one of the largest first, Andrew Van Lines,” Roll recalled.

The owner told the young artist/salesman that he wasn’t interested in local advertising, since theirs was a national business. That didn’t stop Roll.

“I drew the world and sketched the newest truck across it,” Roll wrote. “He was astonished, didn’t even ask the price — and they still use the logo today,” except the company periodically changes the truck design.

“By June I sold more than most and those original salesmen became my good friends,” he wrote. He eventually moved into the art department, retiring in 1980.

Even in retirement, work found him. He and Alice traveled with a fifth-wheel travel trailer.

“One of my customers, World Enterprises, caught up with us in Mission, Texas, and stayed near until I completed artwork for a booklet.”

Requests have come from his hometown, too. His talent was enlisted for artwork when two Mitchell County Catholic churches combined forces to publish a joint directory; his logo was also selected for the St. Ansgar Sesquicentennial.

He has continued to illustrate cards and letters to friends despite a slight tremor in his hand that has come from being a lifetime user of a pen. He lives with his daughter, Regina, and another daughter, Sylvia, is never far away.

Despite the tremor and an occasional sadness that he is only one of three left from his graduating class (Fred Gordon of Delano, Minnesota, and Gerald Halverson of St. Ansgar are the other two), he maintains a sense of humor and wit. Among his artwork is a sketch of Mount Rushmore with his visage nestled between Thomas Jefferson and Teddy Roosevelt.

And, he still looks to the future. Among his artwork is a self-portrait that says “100 in 2018.”

Photographs courtesy of Globe-Gazette
Transcription by Sharon R. Becker, November of 2016



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