Only in Arlington would posing for the greatest illustrator in American history on assignment for media juggernaut The Saturday Evening Post pass for routine.
Richard (Dick) Hagelberg returned to the family dairy farm after surviving five years in the 9’th Army Air Corps, flying 65 treacherous daylight bombing missions over Europe, including D-Day.
One summer morning he sat beside his 51-year-old mother Saara (Finnish spelling) for an hour of modeling; and two generations later, the scene still resonates.
With a publication deadline looming, Rockwell desperately recruited the Hagelbergs'. Initially they refused his proposal, but when he offered them each $15, they acquiesced . After publication, as he often did with models, Rockwell offered to gift Dick the original painting. He respectfully refused.
Sixty years later, in 2006, Rockwell’s "Homecoming Marine" sold at auction for $9.2 million and "Breaking Home Ties" (a farmer sitting on the running board of a pick up truck with his son dressed in Sunday best clothes heading off to college) brought an astonishing $15.4 million.
Rockwell’s 1943 "Freedom From Want", an extended family gathering around a sumptuous turkey dinner, would at the time prove more popular than the minimalist “Thanksgiving, 1945: A mother and son peeling potatoes.”
But the earlier Post cover had a distinct advantage.
Part of Rockwell’s public relations war effort, the epic series of illustrations based on FDR’s 1941 State of the Union speech, "The Four Freedoms," heartened a battered America still reeling from Pearl Harbor’s infamy.
The US Government originally rebuffed Rockwell’s sponsorship proposal, so he settled for his regular employer The Saturday Evening Post. The blockbuster results appeared over four consecutive weekly covers from February 20 to March 13, 1943.
"Freedom From Want” hit the stands on March 6, 1943, so unlike "A Mother and Son Peeling Potatoes" that appeared on November 24, 1945, it was not simply a seasonal Thanksgiving tribute.
The Office of War Information printed and distributed millions of full-color reproductions of the "The Four Freedoms" and sponsored the originals on a War Bond Tour of major cities that raised $130 million, or $1.7 billion in today's dollars.
Americans adored "Freedom From Want"; but with Europe in ruins our struggling, decimated allies didn’t want a reminder that America’s heartland escaped war’s devastation.
For his Thanksgiving, 1945 cover, Rockwell journeyed to Maine for a change in scenery, starting work August 15th--the day Japan surrendered.
Rockwell enlisted a 16-year-old boy to play the veteran and a friend’s wife acted as his mother. But when the illustrator returned to his Arlington studio, he couldn’t make it work—the young man didn’t exude the stress of war.
Rockwell recruited two more locals but once again didn’t like the results, considering it too staged. Fortuitously, Dick, recently returned from battle, arrived to deliver milk fresh from the nearby Hagelberg farm to the illustrator's front door. Rockwell had his subjects.
Rockwell originally posed Dick in a wheelchair striking a pensive pose reminiscent of Rodan’s "The Thinker", but decided it was too melancholy. The selected scene is still slightly incongruous, as Dick is performing one of the military’s more despised chores—KP duty—yet he radiates contentment.
Saara Hagelberg’s loving expression—the look only a mother can give—to a son who survived the ravages of a conflict that had claimed so many sons, personifies Thanksgiving.
Rockwell rejoiced: this time the handsome young man had weathered the misery of war; this time his real mother sits by his side.
So why then refuse to accept the original painting Rockwell had graciously offered? As he often did with models, Rockwell took liberties with Saara's appearance--adding twenty pounds and twenty years. In fact, Hallmark later used her Thanksgiving image for an “I love you Grandma” greeting card.
The dutiful son knew that his mother—although proud of the overall result—was mad.
Saara Hagelberg died of cancer only two years later, a few months before the birth of her first grandchild. By then a priest had purchased the painting and he donated it to an American Legion Post in Winchendon, Massachusetts.
A Rockwell Museum expert rediscovered Thanksgiving, 1945 in the late 1970s and was aghast it hung in a smoke filled building with no fire suppression. The Museum borrowed it, where it remains to this day.
In 1988 the Hagelberg family returned to Arlington from a pilgrimage to Stockbridge, Massachusetts disappointed the painting was not on display.
In an apology letter curator Maureen Hart Hennessey explained, “The museum has almost 500 paintings in its collection and can only exhibit 40-50 at one time. We also rotate paintings for conservation reasons to help preserve them for future generations.”
A few weeks later the Hagelbergs' enjoyed a private showing.
Dick Hagelberg succumbed to cancer in 1993, just after helping to build a home for his daughter Nancy, high on a hill overlooking the family farm that he also built. His wife Olga, a proud WW2 Marine veteran, still lives in that home in Arlington, Vermont.
And lately--even around Thanksgiving--she struggles ... briefly. But then vividly recalls, keeping those magnificent memories alive.
(From the archives 11/21/07)