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Wild imagination

  • Robert LeRoy Ripley, born December 25, 1890, in Santa Rosa, died at age 58 in New York City in 1949, was an American cartoonist, entrepreneur and amateur anthropologist, who created the Ripley's Believe It or Not! newspaper panel series, radio show, and television show which feature odd 'facts' from around the world. He is the subject of Neal Thompson's book, "A Curious Man." Ripley is shown as a child in Santa Rosa. Photo: PD File

There was much in the small town of Santa Rosa to pique the wild imaginings of a boy back at the turn of the last century, according to Thompson.

From the "plant wizard" Luther Burbank's astonishing experiments to the 1906 earthquake that leveled the town to the mysteries of Santa Rosa's Chinatown where he hung out, "Ripley would look back on his childhood and everything came from there," Thompson said.

That would include some of his memorable cartoons, including Burbank's Shasta Daisy, which took the horticulturist 17 years to develop, and the Church of One Tree, where his mother worshipped. Milled from a single redwood, the church that for more than 20 years was a small museum of Ripley memorabilia still stands in Juilliard Park and is rented out for weddings, said Thompson.

The son of a carpenter who died when he was a boy, Ripley grew up poor. He excelled, however, at baseball and even played in the local bush leagues, according to Thompson's research.

It was Santa Rosa High School English teacher Fanny O'Meara who encouraged the stuttering Ripley to draw his assignments. He would research them in historic detail; they were a precursor to the now-famous cartoon panel.

His drawings graced the cover of the 1908 commencement program, although Ripley had been forced months earlier to drop out to help support his family, Thompson said.

He started his cartooning career in San Francisco, then made his way to New York, eventually vaulting to fame with "Believe it Or Not," the cartoon he launched in the New York Globe in 1918.

Ripley may have been homely, but the ladies liked him. He kept a veritable harem of women and would eventually hold court on his own private playboy island, said Thompson. His only wife, a Ziegfeld Follies chorus girl, left him because of his philandering ways.

"He loved life and tried to live it to the fullest," Thompson said. "He loved parties. He loved to eat and drink. He was a very self-indulgent person. He liked to celebrate life and live large."

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at meg.mcconahey@pressdemocrat.com or 521-5204.


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