While Ralph Heimdahl ’30 attended St. Cloud State University when it was a teachers college, his career turned out to be more animated. Heimdahl’s daughter, Martha Slavin, is ensuring her late father’s creative legacy carries on and benefits students at his alma mater.
Heimdahl finished his two-year degree in 1930, going on to teach art for several years before he was invited to attend Walt Disney’s animation school. Eventually he would teach animation there while working on such classics as “Fantasia,” “Dumbo” and “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.”
“Before my dad was a teacher, he was an artist,” Slavin said. “He drew pictures for his high school yearbook (Wilmar), made a collection of family drawings and drew scenes from his hometown. He was known not only for his athletic abilities at St. Cloud State, but for his art.”
Slavin said her father left Disney in 1941 after most of the animators went on strike. Her parents then moved to Vermont at the beginning of World War II, where Heimdahl worked as a design engineer as well as a freelance political and single frame comic artist.
Eventually the Heimdahls moved back to California, where Ralph Heimdahl was offered the Bugs Bunny newspaper comic strip in 1948. He would illustrate it for over 30 years, and the comic strip would publish in over 400 newspapers. He also drew comic book covers and drew some of the children’s books that featured Bugs Bunny, and would later do some work for Hanna-Barbera on the Yogi Bear comic strips that published in England.
“My dad was a humble, quiet, serious person, but he never lost his child-like wonder. He was always seeing things in a different way,” Slavin said. “He had a good sense of humor, which would show up in his drawings. His drawings were not laugh-out-loud kinds of drawings. They would just make you smile.”
Slavin said it typically took her father about one day to design and draw one daily strip — first as a pencil underdrawing, then the final inked version with a brush. He worked with an editor who would make him sometimes change a section, she said, which irritated him because of the extra work that created — but Slavin said it is a normal process with commercial art work. The longer Heimdahl worked on the comic strip, the less he had to make changes.
“When you are working on something in the art world, you spend your time in intense concentration. But it is also just a job in the end,” Slavin said. “He enjoyed it or he would have stopped and worked at something else. It was a challenge to him and he especially enjoyed the reaction from people who loved the strip and Bugs Bunny.”
Slavin said her father was a meticulous chronicler of his time as an artist. Heimdahl kept multiple binders full of information about his activities, including extra work he did for various charities, colleges and libraries, as well as every fan letter he ever received. He spent time doing chalk talks at elementary schools to encourage children to learn to draw. Slavin said her father also served as an officer with his children’s elementary PTA — something she said was unusual at the time, especially for the 1950s.
In 2019, Slavin started working with St. Cloud State Vice President of University Advancement Matt Andrew and University Archivist and Professor Tom Steman to bring some of her father’s work on the Bugs Bunny comic strips to the University Archives. By the end of 2019, the materials were housed at St. Cloud State.
“SCSU seemed the best place for my dad’s drawings. I wanted them to be saved and available to other people to look at,” Slavin said. “I hope that the collection will be a means of studying how an artist develops ideas — whether for comic art or other media.”
Slavin and her husband, Bill, provided financial support for University Archives to hire staff to catalog and arrange the materials and records from Heimdahl. Steman said then-graduate student Marissa Hendrickson helped work on the project, which included thousands of illustrations and was wrapped up by September 2020. An event celebrating the materials coming to the University — postponed from its original date due to circumstances surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic — took place Wednesday, March 23 at St. Cloud State.
Slavin said she hopes the materials give people insight into her father — who she said has been an inspiration to many, including those in his own family.
“It’s so awesome that Ralph Heimdahl, a shining star in the history of popular culture, honed his skills and developed his creativity on our campus,” University President Dr. Robbyn Wacker said during Wednesday’s event. “We have always been proud of Ralph Heimdahl’s accomplishments. In 1966 St. Cloud State College conferred the Distinguished Alumni Award on Ralph, and we are excited to have another opportunity to honor his legacy.”
University Library Dean Rhonda Huisman said the gift of over 5,000 pieces of Heimdahl’s work is a shining example of student success the Archives and Library look to support.
“We support every student in the pursuit of their education by providing dynamic services, relevant collections, and collaborative learning spaces that foster an inclusive environment, intellectual discovery, and curiosity,” she said. “Ralph Heimdahl was a student here, and it’s important for us not only to celebrate his success as an amazing artist, but to remember that our students here today have talents and dreams and opportunities that we are here to support and nurture.”
For Dr. Michael Dando, a St. Cloud State professor, Heimdahl’s legacy is an important reminder for students — and University faculty and staff — to keep dreaming and inspire future generations.
“Our stories will be their stories, and our legacy their heritage,” Dando said. “The archive and this collection is so much more than research materials or something interesting to look at. It is what future generations will look on as they build their way to a better future.”
Tom Steman said Wednesday that he’s excited to see the different ways Heimdahl’s work is used by students.
“That’s my job as the archivist — making the material available for any use, including uses that I would have never dreamed of,” he said. “And that’s the fun of archives — seeing the use of material beyond what the material was created to do initially.”
Martha Slavin said a scholarship was set up at St. Cloud State in her father’s name after he passed away, which started a strong connection for Slavin with the University. That relationship is what led her to work with Steman and Matt Andrew to ultimately bring her father’s work “home.”
“All of these books and boxes upon boxes,” she said. “I thought the best place for them was where my dad started.”
Some of Heimdahl’s work will be on display in the windows of University Archives for some time, and all of his work can be viewed by making an appointment with University Archives.
Bugs Bunny is © of Warner Bros.