Courtesy of the Needham History Center & Museum. Images Gift of Robert Y. Larsen.

Prolific Needham artist Robert Larsen, who portrayed small-town life in his adopted hometown for decades, died Dec. 27. He was 95.

From 1990-2011, Larsen drew more than 500 editorial cartoons for the Needham Times. Every important event and civic leader during those decades is chronicled in his drawings. His work celebrates major events such as Ali Raisman bringing home Olympic gold and the construction of the new library, and smaller events such as NEF spelling bees and sidewalk fairs. He also could imbue the quotidian with meaning and beauty — grandparents holding a grandchild, children learning to read.  

His son Jeff said his dad’s artwork is all over town. He drew the design of the Minuteman that graces the top of the plaque honoring Needham’s fallen heroes on Memorial Field. He has formal portraits hanging in the library, the history center and the Community Council.

“His rendering of the top of Town Hall flies on the banners that the town attaches to light posts,” Jeff Larsen said. “Dad’s work ran the gamut. He did some very serious work about the war in Afghanistan; he also did drawings that were goofy.”

Robert Larsen/ Credit: Courtesy Jeff Larsen

The Needham History Center and Museum received a large collection of Larsen’s work. Museum director Gloria Greis said Larsen’s approach was light-hearted, but his messages were pointed, and he was a savvy observer of his fellow citizens. “Bob had his opinions and he didn’t shy away from letting them be known,” said Greis. “But in the context of town issues, he had a light hand.”  

“The pencil was his weapon of choice,” she said.

As a commercial artist, he did architectural renderings, portraits and illustrations, but he spent a great deal of his time working pro bono for causes in Needham and elsewhere. Some of his many projects include creating art for the National Cathedral, the American Diabetes Foundation and the USS Constitution Museum. 

“Earning a living as a commercial artist was challenging,” Jeff Larsen said. “I grew up in a family with a lot of love, but not a lot of money.”

After he graduated from the Yale School of Art, his National Guard unit was sent into combat in Korea where he rose to the rank of first lieutenant. A life member of Needham’s VFW post, Larson saw his military service as a patriotic duty. Similarly, he viewed his commitment to numerous causes and organizations in town as a civic obligation. 

Larsen and his wife, Liz, moved to Needham in 1964, and both volunteered their services to numerous town-based organizations. He was a Town Meeting Member for 47 years. Jeff Larsen recalled the time and care his father put into the study of every warrant item prior to each session. 

Courtesy of the Needham History Center & Museum. Images Gift of Robert Y. Larsen.

For almost 40 years, Larsen’s drawings appeared on the cover of the Exchange Club’s phone book, often portraying Needhamites enjoying simple pleasures. Many of his cartoons portrayed traditional Needham set against the changes sweeping through town. Ida Mae was the character he invented to portray a more bucolic lifestyle. 

“She was a figment of his very old memory of the old type schoolmarm,” said Jeff Larsen. Ida Mae could appear in the Roche Bros. parking lot next to a former student in short shorts and a halter top, but Ida Mae could also cruise off on a skateboard herself. 

“Norman Rockwell had his Stockbridge, Bob Larsen had his Needham,” said Select Board member Kevin Keane. “He lived and celebrated the small town virtues he found around him.”

Larson’s editor at the Times, Sandy Balzer Tobin, said the newspaper used stock cartoons from national syndicates prior to finding a source who could comment on local events. “The Times was fortunate to have someone who knew local issues and could make very pointed and funny commentary,” she said.

Larsen’s drawings in Needham’s weekly print newspaper included one of Sunita Williams in the International Space Station in 2007 during her live broadcast to students in the Needham schools. In 2011, Larsen drew the cartoon that publicized the town’s tricentennial. 

Larsen often gave his drawings away to the subjects he drew. He attended the all-night party for high school seniors and drew either caricatures or serious sketches based on the student’s preference. 

Even after his father’s hands began to shake, Jeff Larsen said he kept drawing supplies in a sack in his wheelchair at Wingate. 

“He would wheel up to someone and draw something for them,” he said.

Out of more than 65 local cartoon artists, Larsen won first prize in the Editorial Cartoon division from the New England Press Association in 2003. He also won numerous top awards in Needham, including from the Exchange Club, the superintendent of schools, the Melick Foundation and the Needham Business Association.  

Jeff Larsen said his father’s main mission in life was to make people feel worthy. “He did that with his conversation, his smile and with his artwork.” 

A memorial service and celebration of Larsen’s life is planned for Saturday, Feb. 3, at 2 p.m. at the VFW on Junction Street. An exhibit of his work is on display at the Needham History Center & Museum through March. 

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