RALPH WYCOFF BALLANTINE ENTERED THIS WORLD on Sept. 21 — the autumnal equinox, when light becomes clearer, nature advertises change with showy colors, and shadows grow long and sharp as in the vintage noir comics. The year was 1919.
He was the sole male among three sisters in central Michigan. He learned early that he would have to make his way on his own. As it turned out, this made all the difference for this big blue-eyed boy who, would one day become my father, mentor and friend, a larger- than-life persona who left his mark in the art world and his Hilton Head Island home.
Rodney B. Wilson grammar school was the archetype granite-block edifice you see in movies and yellowed postcards from the 1930s.
Here at the epicenter in the St. Johns, Mich., dubbed “Mint City, USA,” Ralph entered the elementary grades - his first life-changing incident. His teacher, who Dad called “Old Lady Ratchet,” looked 130 years old, and did NOT like what she saw in Ralph: He was writing with his LEFT HAND! And to make matters worse, he was DRAWING … IN HIS BOOKS!
Day after day, Ratchet and her stout wooden ruler tried to break his left-hand habit. And by Christmas, Ralph switched to writing with the right hand under the glaring gaze of Authority.
But when Authority turned her back, Ralph resumed as a southpaw. This cat-andmouse game continued all year. When Ralph matriculated to fourth grade, he had become ambidextrous, equally adept at rendering artistic doodles in his reader with either hand, thanks to old lady Ratchet.
She was not the last drill sergeant Ralph would encounter.
Scottish genes rioted in Ralph during his high school years. By senior year he stood 6 feet, 2 inches tall, but tipped the scales at only 140 pounds — the proverbial beanpole teen.
He tried football and repeatedly got crushed by the bulldog farm-boys. He tried basketball, but his size-13 feet were deadweight and slow gait. He might have made a great quarterback, though, because he had The Eye.
He could see glee and shadow and emotion and ruddy weathering on peoples’ faces. He could sketch a crowd of people and each member would radiate personality.
He sketched the architectural intricacy in old buildings; captured the half-light of autumn sun submerging in a Michigan lake; teased out the grumpy charm in a bulldog’s face; warmed the cherubic glee of a child at Christmas. He could see that special essence — the life, the character — in things. And of course, he’d sketch or paint with either hand — thanks to Old Lady Rachet.
Late in World War II, Ralph joined the U.S. Marines. It turned out that his artist’s eye was also a sharpshooter’s eye: he scored high on marksmanship and was promoted to the rank of corporal.
But one day at the Parris Island Marine Recruit Depot, he sketched a portrait of the major commanding the base. Ralph’s drill sergeant saw the drawing, and asked to borrow it. He showed the commander, who lorded the sergeant to “bring in Ballantine,” front-and-center.
He asked Ralph if he could draw all kinds of people; landscapes; battle scenes; tanks, trucks and weaponry: even com stone o tile o area rugs o wood o carpet 16 hiltonheadmonthly.com cartoons. Ralph affirmed each request, and added that he also liked to illustrate architecture.
Within two hours, Ralph and the major boarded a train for Washington D.C., where he spent the remainder of the war as an illustrator for Leatherneck Magazine, distributed to every Marine worldwide.
Ralph Ballantine was honorably discharged at noon, Aug. 9, 1946, the moment I was born.
GOOD AT HANDS
In the ebullient years after the war, my family moved to the Chicago area. The Kling Studio on Michigan Avenue had hired Dad as an illustrator. He soon became the “Closer.”
Like an ace relief pitcher, he was brought in to illustrate hands of characters in a scene. Portrait artists know that the eyes and the hands hold the life and soul of a character. Either you can or cannot capture in paint a person’s essence. Dad always could.
Ralph commuted to the Chicago Loop on the famous “L” train. Often he came home with his artwork or an armful of new product samples from clients.
There was the time that he brought a prototype “Pluto Platter,” made by the Wham-O Company. I asked him what you were supposed to do with it. He showed me how to lightly grip the “platter,” and fling it forward with a little twist of the wrist. On my third try, my plastic disk sailed aloft and traveled down the street almost 50 yards. I was hooked, and pleaded: “Can we keep this?” Dad said he’d report the success of our field test to the good folks at Wham–O.
The next day he brought home a carton of Pluto Platters, now known worldwide as Frisbees. The next week he brought home the first Wham-O Hula Hoop. And the fun kept on coming.
The Leo Burnette Agency referred lots of special commissions to Dad. He illustrated in fascinating detail the interior of milling factories in perfect perspective; magazine features of ethnic cultures; cartoon characters; scenes from farm life to high society.
But my favorite, the one readers will recognize, were the logos. He created the Good Hands at Allstate, Tony the Tiger, Borden’s Elsie the Cow and dozens more images still in use.
My favorite memory is the Jolly Green Giant. Dad posed for, and helped illustrate, this famous General Mills/Le Seur logo. Some readers also will remember the Giant’s apprentice “Sprout.” I posed for the illustration of that little guy.
Chicago weather (freeze, swelter, shiver, sweat) finally got to my parents. In 1967, Charles Fraser sold them their ocean-view lot in Sea Pines.
Dad designed their house in a historically accurate “plantation” style. Fraser, ever observant and always adventurous, befriended Dad. And so began Ralph’s next career: as architectural designer.
Travel around the Island and you will see the iconic results of this creative relationship: the New England fishing villagestyle buildings at South Beach; CQ’s restaurant, based on 18th century Carolina rice barns, at Harbour Town; Old Fort Pub in Hilton Head Plantation; Civil War-era design adjacent to an 1861 Union Battery, to name a few.
Visit the Liberty Oak at Habour Town in Sea Pines Resort. Ralph’s bronze sculpture of Charles Fraser guards the grand old tree — as Fraser himself did when the marina was excavated.
My dad, Ralph Ballantine passed away in 2013. He dedicated his life to his prodigious artistry. He sacrificed his all for his family.
Look around: you’ll see his good works throughout this community. They are the footprints of a Giant.