MONMOUTH, Ill. — With the exception of a handful of artists like Milton Glaser, who designed the iconic “I Love New York” logo, graphic art visionaries are mostly unsung. One such unsung graphic designer, who had a remarkably long and versatile career, was closely associated with Monmouth College.
Born in St. Louis in 1895 to parents who graduated from Monmouth in 1890, Ralph Waddell Douglass entered Monmouth College in the fall of 1914 and immediately made an impression as a cartoonist for the college’s yearbook and student newspaper. Signing his compositions simply “Doug,” his highly-polished pen-and-ink drawings drew heavily from the influence of celebrated cartoonists of the day H. T. Webster and Ding Darling.
Before he could finish his college career, Douglass was drafted into the Army, where he served as a second lieutenant in the machine gun corps. After the armistice, he returned to Monmouth, graduating with the Class of 1920. That summer, he took a tour of Scotland, then sailed to Cairo, where he became an instructor in drawing at the American University for three years. He then sailed to the United States, where he took a position as a staff cartoonist for the Chicago Daily News.
After six years in Chicago, where he also studied at the Art Institute, Douglass left for the Southwest, joining the art faculty at the University of New Mexico. In 1942, he designed a Victory poster that was reproduced in Life magazine. He rose to head of the art department but in 1946 declined any further administrative advancement, in order to devote more time to the practice of his profession. His only son was killed in Belgium the previous year while guiding a combat patrol.
Douglass became fascinated with calligraphy, studying under the renowned calligrapher Arnold Bank at the Art Students League in New York. He wrote a widely adopted textbook titled Calligraphic Lettering with Wide Pen and Brush — the first book of its kind.
Between 1943 and 1949, Douglass illustrated a series of seven children’s books by Loyd Tireman, published by the University of New Mexico Press. The books followed the realistic adventures of prairie dogs, roadrunners, coyotes and other native high-desert animals. The “Mesaland” series was once a staple of grade-school libraries, but gradually went out of print. In 2016, UNM Press reissued the collection after Douglass’s great-nephew, an archaeologist who was working at UNM, asked about the books and they were rediscovered in the university archives.
In the 1950s, Douglass bought his first television and was disappointed by how difficult it was to read the numbers of football jerseys. Bulky block letters had been the standard in athletic uniforms for decades — one and a half inches wide, which made it difficult to discern a “3” or a “6” from an “8.” Douglass appealed to the rules committee of the NCAA to allow the UNM Lobos to adopt one-inch wide numbers in a font he called Modern Gothic, resembling the Futura and Gill Sans typefaces. In 1956, the rules committee approved the font for optional use.
Because of his family’s ties to Monmouth College (two brothers and two sisters also attended), Douglass maintained close contact, and in 1946 staged an exhibit of his paintings at the college art building. He received an honorary doctor of fine arts degree from his alma mater in 1953 and served on its board of trustees from 1960–64.
When President Robert Gibson retired in 1964, he painted a portrait of Gibson, who sat for him both on campus and at Douglass’s home in Albuquerque. Gibson was portrayed wearing a silver medallion of the college seal, which Douglass designed as a presidential symbol of office. He had previously redesigned the college seal itself, and the more modern version was officially adopted by the board of trustees.
On the 50th anniversary of his graduation from Monmouth in 1970, Douglass presented a three-dimensional triptych titled Browning Trilogy to his alma mater. It was created as a memorial to Professor Luther Robinson, longtime head of the English department, whose teaching first interested Douglass in Browning’s work. The unusual piece, which features passages from Browning in beautiful calligraphy, toured art museums in the Southwest before its final destination at Monmouth’s Hewes Library.
Douglass died the following year after a long illness. In his will, he established a scholarship at Monmouth College in memory of his son, who was killed during World War II.
Jeff Rankin is an editor and historian for Monmouth College. He has been researching, writing and speaking about western Illinois history for more than 35 years.