Earlier this year, I received the terrible news that acclaimed artist and illustrator Dick Kramer, one of our favorite contributors to The Armory Life, had passed away at the age of 83. While I was fully aware of his work over my more than two decades in this industry, I had not had the pleasure of working with him until relatively recently.
Upon taking the reins of The Armory Life in late 2019, you can image my surprise when I learned the father of the Vice President of Marketing for Springfield Armory was the very man we are discussing here.
“Wait a second, your father is the Dick Kramer, the guy that has done just about every iconic illustration for the gun industry as long as I have been working in it?”, I said to him. Memories of exquisitely drawn illustrations of members of tactical units immediately came to mind. “Can I work with him on The Armory Life?” were the next words out of my mouth.
That conversation laid the groundwork for Dick Kramer to create a series of cartoons for The Armory Life, a highly popular section of our website that showcased his sense of humor and the lighter side of his voluminous skillset. It also gave me an opportunity to get to know the man behind all the amazing work I had admired for so many years.
Telling the Story
Frankly, this is not the article I intended to write about Dick Kramer. In one of my many conversations with him over the past few years, I had suggested to him in late 2021 that we do a spotlight piece on him and his work. I wanted our readers to have the opportunity I had been given — to get to know the man behind all the amazing work.
Unfortunately, we never had the chance to do that interview. Conflicting schedules combined with health issues he was facing prevented me from being able to get that piece done — something I regret. That leaves me now to try to tell his story on my own, thankfully with the help of his son, Steve Kramer.
“I’m very proud of the life my dad lived, and the man he was. Although far from perfect, like us all, I can honestly say I never saw my dad do a single underhanded act my entire life. We always would say, if his life were a movie, no one would believe it,” said Steve Kramer.
The Man Behind the Canvas
Donald Richard Kramer was born on April 1st in 1938 in Newark, New Jersey. The son of Donald and Pearl Kramer, Dick quickly showed an aptitude for art. As a child, he soon developed a reputation for drawing on anything upon which he could get his hands — often to the consternation of those around him.
“His mother, my grandmother, would get calls from school about him,” said Steve Kramer to me as I was working on this article. “They would complain that Dick’s textbooks would be covered in drawings.”
Dick’s passion for art drove him, but his path faced some twists and turns before he was able to make his passion a vocation. However, he never strayed far from that goal. While researching this article, I learned that one of his first jobs was as a local butcher’s assistant when he was seven years old. Why do I mention this? Because rather than cash, Dick accepted payment in the form of brown butcher’s paper he would use for canvases for his artwork.
And Dick’s childhood and adolescent years were not easy ones, with him facing some remarkable hardships. When he was a young boy, he stumbled across a box in a park he thought might be good for storing his pencils and art supplies. That box had been rigged as an explosive by some lunatic, with the explosion nearly taking his eyesight as well as his fingers. The quick actions of a family friend who had been a field surgeon on Iwo Jima saved his hands. He spent six months in the hospital recovering from this attack.
As a teenager, Dick found himself — as can be the case with a lot of young men — hanging out with the wrong people and not making the best decisions. His single mother had gotten to the point where she could not handle him anymore and sent him to military school in Boone, North Carolina. I suspect being a kid from New Jersey at a military school in the South in the 1950’s was not an easy experience.
Upon his graduation from Nutley High School in New Jersey, Dick enlisted in the United States Navy at the age of 17. He would soon distinguish himself, becoming the youngest 2nd Class Petty Officer in the Pacific Fleet, serving as an Aviation Ordnanceman.
Steve told me that his father cited his decision to join the U.S. Navy as the second-best decision he ever made after his troubled younger years — the first being his proposal to his wife of more than six decades, Virginia. He and Ginny married shortly after his honorable discharge from the military in 1959.
Setting His Sights
Dick and Ginny soon started building a family, with the birth of twin boys Richard and Robert in 1960. They would be followed by daughters Sue and Katy a few years later, and then Steve as the youngest of what had become a very large family.
In those early years, money was extremely tight for the growing family. Dick took on various jobs, such as loading trucks, selling vacuum cleaners door-to-door, and picking up corpses for a local mortuary for $5 a body. But his passion for art never subsided. While his jobs dominated his days, he attended the Newark School of Fine and Industrial Art as well as the School of Visual Arts in New York City in the evenings in those early days of his marriage.
It was here that he would learn to refine the natural talents he had exhibited since his childhood. “Dad didn’t graduate from either of the schools,” Steve told me. “He would stay in the classes until the teachers started repeating themselves. Then, he would find another one to take where he could learn more.”
Clearly, this approach worked. Dick soon found notable success as an artist, working as a freelance illustrator in New York City for a wide range of clients, including such notable ones as Grosset & Dunlap, Bell Telephone and the National Football League, to name just a few. In recognition of his accomplishments, it was during this time he was accepted into the prestigious Society of Illustrators.
In 1981, Dick accepted a position as a staff artist with the defense contractor ITT. His work would support their military programs. He would go on to create more than 60 original paintings for the Air Force Art Program, and lay the foundation for what he came to view as the defining artistic work of his life.
In 1987, he was selected to paint a mural honoring the 40th anniversary of the Berlin Airlift. This mural would capture the drama and heroism of the triumphant Allied effort to counter the Soviet blockade of Allied-controlled areas of Berlin. The mural Dick created spanned an enormous 16’x8’, and he was given the honor of presenting it to President Ronald Reagan hours before his historic “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” speech at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. The mural currently hangs in honor at Berlin’s Templehof Airport, and will soon be transferred to the Allied Museum in the same city.
A New Chapter
Patriotism and love of country were an integral part of what made Dick Kramer the man he was. When he decided to open his own studio with his wife, Ginny, in the late 1980’s, he made it his mission to use his art to honor the military and law enforcement communities. This makes sense, considering his love of America as well as his own personal story.
In addition to his time with the U.S. Navy, Kramer also had direct connections with the law enforcement community. He and his daughter Suzanne had made New Jersey history as the first father and daughter to graduate from the same police academy — the Essex County Police Academy in Verona. They would go on to serve together as Special Deputy Sheriffs.
Dick created hundreds of pieces of art during this time in his career, profiling every type of first responder and elite unit imaginable. It was this era of his work with which I was the most familiar. From the 1990’s on, you would be hard-pressed to open up a catalog or visit a company webpage in the firearms community without seeing some of his artwork.
Because of his efforts, he was the recipient of countless awards from police and military organizations, including the Department of Homeland Security, for his skillful depiction of these heroes. He was named Entrepreneur of the Year by the Loudoun County Chamber of Commerce in 1998, and Citizen of the Year by the city of Purcellville, Virginia, in 2014.
The impact of his loss has been felt strongly, not only by his family and close friends, but also by his legions of fans from his multi-decade career. It has most certainly been felt here at The Armory Life. We could not be more proud to have some of his exceptional work gracing our website. And if you would like to purchase some of his artwork for yourself, please be sure to visit the website link below.
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