With the same hand he used to create the Disney character Thumper – Bambi’s best bud – Col. William Tilton also rendered countless salutes during his 32-year career in the United States military.
Tilton served in both World War II and the Korean War, and when he wasn’t jumping out of airplanes, he was doodling drawings for his fellow soldiers or even painting the portraits of generals.
Tilton and wife Alice retired in Raleigh in 1992. It was not the first time Tilton had lived in North Carolina – he had been stationed at Fort Bragg once and was not initially interested in returning to the area, his wife said.
But a visit in the 1980s convinced the couple that Raleigh was the place for them. A large part of the draw to the area was the burgeoning art scene, of which Tilton would become an integral member, friends and family say.
Tilton died last month at 92. His loved ones marvel at the life he led, bucking stereotypes and finding a way to fulfill both personal and family desires.
“He was so proud to serve his country, but my father was such a contradiction,” said his daughter, Karen Spinella of Pennsylvania.
She described him as a “straight arrow” who had his uniforms tailored because he did not like the way they fit. However, he was also the sort of grandfather who would wear silly hats to get a giggle from the children. And he was always game for a detour if he saw a sign for an interesting destination when out for a drive.
“There’s not a snake farm I haven’t seen,” his daughter joked.
Tilton was raised in Rawlins, Wyo., the son of a petroleum engineer. He showed an early aptitude for art, winning a drawing contest at the age of 5, his family said. They still have the winning entry – a drawing of a king.
“My father apparently had drawn since he could hold a pencil,” Spinella said.
Tilton’s father could not fathom one of his sons not being an engineer, let alone becoming an artist.
“That was what the Tilton boys were supposed to do – they were all engineers, except for my father,” Spinella said “Luckily for him his mother was very progressive and thought it was a fine idea that her youngest boy would go to art school.”
And so he did, attending the Ringling College of Art & Design in Sarasota, Fla. From there he became an assistant to famed artist Grant Wood at the University of Iowa. Wood was known for his painting “American Gothic,” the iconic image of a pitchfork-wielding farmer and his wife.
Tilton eventually moved to Hollywood, where he worked for Disney. He worked on animated films such as “Pinocchio” and “Bambi,” where he was the principal illustrator for the Thumper character, and also drew the circus train in the film “Fantasia,” his family said.
When World War II broke out, Tilton was quick to enlist. He did not want his record to show he had been drafted, said his stepson David Hickman of Raleigh.
Hickman met Tilton while attending the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. Tilton had retired from the military and was working on his master of fine arts degree at Denver University, and Hickman knew Tilton’s children. Tilton became a mentor of sorts, sharing the military connection.
Hickman introduced Tilton to his mother, Alice, and a few years later, when Tilton was divorced, he asked Hickman if he might ask Alice on a date.
Tilton and Alice were soon wed – he designed their wedding bands – and they moved to Virginia where she worked in communications for the Pentagon. Though he had returned to his career as a professional artist, the retired Colonel enjoyed living so near the nation’s capital.
He loved the military.
Tilton served in the U.S. Army first as an enlisted soldier in World War II, during which he was mostly deployed to the Pacific. He was sent to Officer Candidate School where he became a Lieutenant, and also joined the Army Corps of Engineers – something his father deeply appreciated.
Following the war Tilton worked in New York City for a while in advertising, and remained in the Army reserves. He was again called to duty during the Korean War, during which he would make more than 3,500 parachute jumps.
Jumping out of planes proved hard on his joints, and Tilton would become one of the earliest recipients of a knee replacement, Hickman said.
Following Korea, Tilton stayed on in the military. His daughter Karen, one of his three children from his first marriage, remembers how much he enjoyed the military lifestyle, while remaining devoted to visual arts.
“He always had a pencil and a notebook or a piece of paper in his hand and was drawing constantly,” she said. “In restaurants he would be drawing on napkins.”
During his military career Tilton worked with NATO, spending time in places including Mali and France. Yet art was always there, whether he was drawing the animals he spotted in Africa, or the portraits he made of fellow officers. He had art shows during his deployments as well.
When the couple moved to Raleigh, they wasted no time in immersing themselves in the local art scene. Tilton became very involved with Visual Art Exchange in Raleigh, a nonprofit that serves as an incubator for young and new artists, as well as a gallery.
“He was constantly giving of his talents, his time, and anything anybody asked him for,” said Jane Kluba, a friend within Tilton’s art circle. The Tiltons played host to monthly dinner parties where local artists enjoyed a place to talk about their work. Tilton organized workshops for low-income youth, and worked to raise money to support artistic endeavors.
“I was just one of many people that they helped,” Kluba said.
Tilton often traveled with Kluba to exchange art with other galleries throughout the state. “They were there for more people than you can imagine.”
Tilton wrote a column called “The Pro’s Nest” for the Artist’s Magazine, and published a book on drawing animals that was translated into other languages. He also designed a line of cards for the company Leanin’ Tree.
“He was always studying and improving and reading,” Hickman said.
Tilton sometimes asked for paintings that he had sold to be returned so that he could improve them.
“He said, ‘I don’t want to be embarrassed by something I did, now that I’m better,’ ” Hickman said.
Tilton thought that anyone could be an artist, Alice Tilton said, and was always encouraging it in others.
“I think it was as much a part of him as walking,” she said.