Gibney was drawn to an artistic career

January 08, 2006|By MARLO BARNHART

Although Ralph Irvin Gibney Jr. only took one art course in his life, he parlayed that into a career that spanned more than four decades and also brought joy to Christmas shoppers through his unique holiday window decorations in Hagerstown.

"He always knew what he wanted to do and he never wavered," said stepdaughter Barbara Bachtell, recalling the qualities of the man who came into her life when she was 12 years old.

Ralph died Jan. 1 at the age of 87.

Barbara said Ralph idolized Walt Disney and all of the magic he created with his genius for animation.

"And Charles Schulz, creator of the 'Peanuts' comic strip, signed his diploma from the one art course he took at Art Instruction Inc.," Barbara said.


Early in Ralph's childhood, it seemed he was destined to be an artist. He was encouraged by his teachers "to go to art school." Through that correspondence art course and teaching himself, he honed his ability.

The first art he sold was in 1933 for Tewalt's Shoe Shop in Hagerstown. The characters seem reminiscent of early Disney characters, albeit without the trademark ears.

Ralph started working for Porter Chemical in Hagerstown. For about two years, he drew illustrations for instruction manuals and colorful labels for the boxes of chemical sets.

In 1941, Ralph went to work for the Potomac Edison Co. (now Allegheny Energy), where he worked for the next 39 years in the advertising department, retiring in June 1980.

Ralph's career was interrupted in June 1944 when he was inducted into the U.S. Army. After basic training, he was deployed to Europe, where he served during the Battle of the Bulge.

After the cease-fire, but while still in the Army, Ralph drew cartoons for "The American Traveler." He earned several battle medals and ribbons during his military service.

Ralph was discharged from the U. S. Army in January 1946 and resumed his career in art.

Ralph's work has been featured in the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Collection in Williamsburg, Va. In 1967, a special reception was held at the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts with a viewing of Ralph's art, including his window displays.

Barbara said her mother was introduced by a neighbor to Ralph, then a new widower with four young children. The plan had been for Barbara and her mother to move to Harrisburg, Pa., until she met Ralph.

"Once they married, we all lived together as a family - I became an instant big sister," Barbara said.

Barbara said through the years, she learned that Ralph was the kind of person who would give you the shirt off his back.

"There is nothing bad to say about him," Barbara said.

At the time of Ralph's second marriage to Dorothy Huston (Gibney), he had no car and was taking the bus to work every day when Potomac Edison was downtown. That second marriage lasted more than 35 years until Dorothy's death in 1987.

It was in the windows of the old Potomac Edison appliance store at 32 N. Potomac St. where Ralph created his signature holiday displays with intricate designs and movement every Christmas. Barbara said he did 13 windows over the years, and people came downtown just to see them.

"At Christmastime, we would take him to Washington, D.C., so he could see the windows at the old Woodward & Lothrop store there," Barbara said.

Now living in Middletown, Del., Barbara recalls returning to Hagerstown with her husband and children to visit Ralph through the years.

"Pap Pap, as he was called, would always tell my children bedtime stories - he was very good at that and sharing his art," Barbara said.

This is a copy of the first artwork that Ralph Irvin Gibney Jr. sold in 1933 for Tewalt's Shoe Shop in Hagerstown. Most of Gibney's career was spent in the advertising department at Potomac Edison.

Ralph Gibney shows an example of his talent as an artist in this picture taken at his home in 1993.

The Herald-Mail Articles