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A Life Well Lived: Bob Montana Book To Be Published

Kathi Caldwell-Hopper - June 26, 2013

Bob Montana

Bob Montana, creator of the Archie comics, was a well-known community figure in Meredith. Photo © Montana family.

Bob Montana, creator of the Archie comic strip — one of the most popular comics ever to run in newspapers far and wide — was a fascinating person. He gave back to the community in which he lived (Meredith) and he was far ahead of his time in progressive projects such as organic gardening.

“I never knew he lived here!” is the comment Carol Anderson heard often as she interviewed people and gathered material on her soon-to-be-published book about Bob Montana.

She said everyone has seen the Archie comics but many do not realize the creator and artist who drew the comic strip lived for years in Meredith.

Anderson, the author of The History of Gunstock, is putting the finishing touches on her book about Bob Montana. Thus, she has lived and breathed the life of Montana for many months and, when she speaks of him, she lights up.

“He contributed a lot to the world,” she says. “I wanted the book to celebrate Montana the man, not just his work as an artist. He volunteered his time and talents to many causes, both local and national.”

Anderson became aware of Bob Montana while researching the Gunstock book. Like many people, she knew he was a Lakes Region resident but she did not know a lot else about him. When she found a comic he did on Gunstock, she realized the talent, the humor, and the way Montana could seamlessly work local scenes and people into the Archie comic strip.

“That is how a book usually starts,” she says. “I see something and it sparks an idea. I might see an article or a photograph on something I didn’t know about before. Then, as is always the way, I see it everywhere!  It just grows from there.”

She began to dream about doing a book on Montana and her publishers at the History Press liked the idea. But first, she approached Montana’s daughter, Lynn, who still lives in the area.

“Lynn loved the idea of a book on her father and so did her siblings [Bob and Peg Montana had four children]. They were thrilled that someone wanted to write about their Dad’s life,” Anderson recalls.

In researching the artist, Anderson soon realized there is not much out there on Montana. The basic facts she found were that he was born in 1920 and his father was, at the time, known as the world’s greatest banjo player. Montana’s father was a performer on the vaudeville circuit and his family accompanied him on the road. The family summered at a farm they owned in Meredith and later opened Montana’s Restaurant in the town. The Great Depression made it difficult to keep the restaurant going and vaudeville had fallen out of popularity.

The Montana family moved to Boston and Bob’s parents opened a restaurant there, which became a going concern. “His father died of heart problems when Bob was only a teenager and it was difficult. But Bob was talented and he went on to attend art school and then went to New York City to work for a comic strip company.”

The Archie gang.

An original sketch of the Archie gang by cartoonist Bob Montana. Photo © Montana family.

Because the details of how the comic strip came about are in the book, Anderson says that she would rather hold off on that pertinent information. “You can read about it in the book, which is titled The New England Life of Cartoonist Bob Montana: Beyond the Archie Comic Strip. (She did share that most people have no idea that Montana first drew the Archie comic strip when he was at Lake Waukewan.)

Clearly, Montana always loved Meredith and the Lakes Region and had fond memories of his youthful years spent in the area. When he married (his wife, Peg, according to Anderson, was a model-beautiful woman), the artist purchased a farm in Meredith where he began married life.

“He was very active locally and most people around Meredith knew Bob,” Anderson goes on to say. “He was approachable, just one of the locals, but people still speak of how talented he was and how much he gave back to the area.”

Anderson says that what she learned of Montana’s energy amazed her. “He was almost superhuman. He was always busy and was a very highly respected member of the Meredith community. He worked to do what was right and to contribute and he never refused, as far as I can see, to help a good cause. For example, he invited the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts to visit his studio. He did USO appearances often. He entertained the troops and he was constantly in motion.

“I saw that the humor in his comic strips was brilliant. Bob did both the drawings and the writing for the Archie comics. Today, cartoonists have teams to produce the strips. He had an assistant for inking, but he drew the comics and did the writing himself. He was a genius but a very down-to-earth person. The people that knew him said Bob was untouched and not affected by fame.”

One person Anderson interviewed for her book is now grown, but recalls being a youth in Meredith in the 1960s. He speaks glowingly of growing up in the town where Bob Montana lived. The artist encouraged youths and he was known to support causes that benefited young people.

“Bob was very likeable, but he wouldn’t have liked to be treated like a celebrity. He was just ‘Bob’ around town. On the other hand, he realized he had a status and his endorsement meant a lot. He would do drawings for nothing if it helped someone or something he believed in,” Anderson added.

Perhaps because he grew up traveling the vaudeville circuit with his performing father, Bob loved theatre and film. He acted in local plays and made some films that were shot in the Meredith area.

By the 1970s, Bob was semi-retired and was always ready to try new things. That was when he got interested in organic gardening, putting him ahead of his time.

Bob and Peg were living and enjoying life in Meredith on their farm and, as an artist, Montana was always creating something. Sadly, he did not enjoy a long retirement and died in January 1975.

Anderson’s fondness for Montana shows when she speaks with emotion about the day the artist was out cross-country skiing on his property with his family and died of a heart attack. He was just 54-years-old and the community and the world were stunned at the news of his passing.

“He packed so much into those 54 years,” Anderson asserts. “And he was a pleasant person, always with a joke for others and so happy to be helping out however he could.”

Meeting and getting to know Lynn Montana gave Anderson a lot of helpful background on the artist. It also changed the slant of her book over time. No longer a “history of Bob Montana’s work” it became a deeply felt story about a human being, a wonderful person Anderson is sad she never got to meet.

“I leaned on Lynn Montana a lot when I was researching and then writing the book on her father. She was so helpful with correct dates and insight on what Bob was thinking and how they lived. She has been incredibly helpful and I can’t thank her enough. She helped it come together; she recently looked over all the images I am using and tweaked things as needed,” Anderson explained.

“In truth, the history of Bob Montana, like any historical story, has already been written by the life he led. I let the information lead me. It was my job to uncover the story. You have to report the facts as they are when you are writing historically. But, beyond the facts, what I found out about Bob was so positive that I knew my book had to be about his life and his contributions because what he did and what he was matters so much.”

If the popularity of Anderson’s Gunstock book is anything to go by, the Montana book will be a hit as well. She says the Gunstock book’s popularity has “far exceeded what I ever thought. I still get invited to speak to local groups about the book and people all across the country still email me about enjoying the book. I had no idea Gunstock was so beloved all across the United States!”

The Montana book will be out in the fall (distribution date will most likely be in September or October). Anderson can surely expect to have speaking invitations come fast and furious once the book hits newsstands.

People will find the book on a local celebrity and artist a fascinating look at the life of a very real person.

“Bruce Heald, a writer, teacher, and historian, did the forward for the book. He was a good friend of Bob’s and he even appeared in one of the comic strips. He said it was difficult to put into words all that his friend, Bob, meant to him but his forward is a great introduction to the book.”

If Anderson has any regrets about the Montana book and all she learned about the artist, it is that she never got to meet him. “I am heartbroken I never got to meet Bob. I would give anything to have lived in Meredith as a kid, and to have met Bob. I know he would have influenced me. It must have been magical to grow up in the 1940s to 1960s with Bob in town.”

More than Bob’s fame and successes, that endorsement is a fitting tribute to a life well lived.

Carol Anderson

Author Carol Lee Anderson is working on a biography of Archie comics creator Bob Montana.


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