While I’ve tended to focus on how funny Al was and how he loved to razz people, he had a deep and serious side too. Al had spent a lifetime immersing himself in the work of the great illustrators and had a scholar’s appreciation and understanding of the craft of pen and ink. When he would pull out some amazing pieces he’d picked up, like say a batch of unfinished Joseph Clement Cole illustrations or a Hal Foster Prince Valiant page, there was no razzing going on. Al knew what it took to attain the high plateaus the very best of these artists had reached. He took it as his duty to preserve the work that had inspired him and radiated a knowing awe in its presence.
But he did like to poke fun too. When I first started assisting him, I was rail thin and kept my long hair pulled back in a pony tail. I’d just graduated from art school and had a starving student’s appreciation for Cori’s home cooked meals. Al took one look at me smiling in anticipation over a delicious smelling dish and said “Sport, have you ever seen SLEEPY HOLLOW?” That night he screened the Disney animated version for us and there I was; tall pony-tailed Ichabod Crane, sniffing a scrumptious looking apple pie. After that there wasn’t a meal that went by without Al giving me a big wise guy smile and us both knowing what he meant.
Cori alerted us when Al was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease and when we went to visit him we were relieved to see that he hadn’t changed much at all. He looked just like the silver haired devil we’d grown to love and was still cracking wise. His short term memory was playing tricks on him, though. He’d tell a story and a few minutes later tell it again. We quickly learned to help him get past these episodes and had a blast talking about art, artists and old times. When I told him how much his Flash Gordan comics had meant to me he pulled out a box and presented me with brand new uncirculated copies! He gave me a book of his sketches that had just come out and signed it. But when he tried to draw a little dinosaur in it he faltered. The disease was slowly robbing him of his great ability with pen and ink and that, my friends, was heartbreaking.
The people we eulogize as “great” tend to be the ones who fought wars in which thousands died or amassed giant fortunes while others went hungry. Well, to me, Al Williamson achieved so much more than any general, king or capitalist ever did. Al spent a lifetime following his creative passion. At his peak he was among the best pen and ink artists comics has ever produced. He saved untold examples of the best work of other artists from the trash heap. He nurtured young talents and made a huge difference in the lives of many of them. He was a loving husband and father and a faithful friend. Al Williamson was a truly great man.