Dick Kramer has repeatedly taken the road less traveled when dealing with authority, and that unique approach to life comes through in his artwork.
Somehow, he has always been able to make thing work out in his favor
In elementary school, his teachers called his mother in for a meeting because Kramer was filling every inch of his math workbook pages with sketches and doodles instead of multiplication and long division.
In the Navy, he sketched an unflattering lampoon of an admiral to show his friends, only to have a copy of that cartoon end up in the hands of that officer.
In art school, he eschewed the intended curriculum, choosing instead of move from class to class when he decided he had learned all he could from that instructor.
As art director of a major U.S. defense contractor, a scheme to get sent back to Germany to reunite with his buddies landed him a meeting with President Reagan on the same day the president delivered his famous “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall” speech.
Now 80, Kramer sifts through drawings in the basement studio of his Leesburg home, each one recounting a captured moment from his incredible life.
“It’s been a rocket ride,” Kramer said. “Somebody lit the fuse and it just happened. I wouldn’t trade my life with anybody.”
Kramer’s story began in Nutley, New Jersey. Art was always his driving force, beginning with his first confrontation with authority.
“I drew and drew and drew in school and it caused a lot of problems,” Kramer said. “They were going to stop me from drawing and I was not going to stop. My mother worked nights as a telephone operator – my father was long gone. They called her in and there were four teachers and her and me. They handed her my math book, with blank pages where you were supposed to work your math problems. Every inch of it was covered with drawings.”
My mother said, ‘What do you want me to do, cut off his hands? He is not going to stop drawing.’ She walked out, and one by one the teachers got up and walked out. They gave me ‘D’s’ and passed me along.”
Without finishing high school, Kramer enlisted in the Navy.
“Back then, you didn’t have to have a high school diploma, so I signed up for the Navy on my 17th birthday,” Kramer said. “I remember lying on my bunk that first night. I was all alone and scared. Like a bolt of lightning, I told myself, ‘OK, you’re grown up now.’”
Kramer was in the Navy from 1955-59, and was assigned to the aircraft carrier USS Midway. He had a chance meeting with the admiral who was using the Midway as his flagship and drew a cartoon of him to show his buddies.
“I showed it around and crumpled it up and threw it in the garbage,” Kramer said. “They took it out and went down to the print shop and ran off about 500 copies.”
The next day, he was summoned to the admiral’s office.
“He said, ‘You did this?’ I said, ‘Yes sir.’ He said, ‘Do you know where you are going?’ I said, ‘If I’m lucky, I’m going to the Norfolk Navy Prison.’ He said, ‘No, you’re going to Tokyo.’”
Kramer had earned the job of doing the artwork for the cruise book that officers have made for each deployment.
“It was really nice,” Kramer said. “We weren’t put up in a hotel. We were living in a house in Tokyo provided by the printing company.”
When Kramer got out of the Navy, he met and married Ginny and they started a family. It was Ginny who encouraged him to pursue his passion as an artist by enrolling in art school.
“I would go to school at night and then go down to the docks in Newark and work until 6 a.m.,” Kramer said. “I had a couple of other jobs during the day. One job I had was picking up bodies for the undertaker in town. It was a hard life.”
Even when the subject was art and not math, Kramer still struggled with patience in the conventional classroom setting.
“I went (to art school) for a total of about five years, but I never got a degree. I would stay in one class until the teacher started repeating things or when I had learned everything I could from them. Then I would just start going to a different class. I found out later that the teachers had a pool about whose class I would stay in the longest.”
After about five years, Kramer decided he was done with art school.
“One night I walked in and looked around and decided, ‘You just graduated.'” he said. “I started freelancing. We had 70 bucks in the bank and four kids.”
Kramer struggled with getting his foot in the door as a commercial artist.
“Every place would look at my work and say, ‘Have you been published?’ I would say no and they would say, ‘Thanks for stopping by.’”
Kramer finally made an impression by refusing to leave the waiting room when a prospective employer told him he would have to reschedule the interview.
“That was Kay Ward and she got me my first job. It was the cover of a coloring book. Then I went on to doing the reprints of Nancy Drew books and things like that.”
Kramer eventually landed a job as art director with ITT Avionics. It wasn’t his dream job, but it led to the big break in his professional life.
“It was an awful job, doing bar graphs and crap, but I had a ton of work,” he said. “I got caught up and went to see my boss and asked if I could paint for ITT. He said go ahead. They were building a radar jammer for the EA-6B Prowler. I did this painting and he looked at it and walked out. Twenty minutes later, he comes back with the president of the company and he said, ‘from now on, you send all your work out. You paint.’”
“I started painting every plane we made equipment for, which was pretty much everything. Then, I convinced them that to really paint a plane, I had to fly in it. Bingo. Now I’m going all over the place flying in all these planes.”
Working with ITT, Kramer ended up at Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany, where he became reacquainted with several of the pilots he had flown with back in the United States.
“They joked that I should try to figure out a way to get back there,” Kramer said. “One of them said his boss was really big on the Berlin Airlift, so I submitted a suggestion that I should do a mural about the airlift. I submitted and it and he came back and said, ‘This is a great idea. You should do it.’”
Kramer was commissioned to paint an 8-foot by 16-foot mural for the Allied Museum in Berlin. Kramer said the size of the blank mural almost overwhelmed him.
“I had never done anything that big before,” he said. “They built scaffolding so I could reach the top. When I looked at all that white, I was terrified. For a while, I just stared at it. Then, I went up on the scaffolding and drew a big happy face. After that, I was OK.”
Kramer started working on the mural, and then was told he had to finish in three months, in time for its dedication at the Allied Museum to coincide with celebration of the 500th anniversary of the founding of Berlin.
“I almost killed myself making this thing, and they shipped it over to Berlin and Ginny and I went there for the dedication,” Kramer said. “We’re standing there looking at it and here comes 50 motorcycles with flashing lights and the whole thing. Reagan had just made his big speech at Brandenburg Gate and came directly to the museum – the president and the first lady. It was pretty amazing.”
Kramer left the corporate world and he and Ginny moved to Florida, where he hoped to make a living doing “serious artwork.”
“We found out that old people sell everything when they move to Florida,” Kramer said. “They are looking to get rid of stuff, not buying stuff. I was able to get some portrait work but it was pretty lean. We were living off our savings and not making any money.”
Once again, the universe smiled on Dick Kramer. He was contacted by Heckler and Koch, a German weapons manufacturer with a law enforcement sales unit and school in Loudoun County.
“They wanted me to do five vignettes for their calendars from their school here,” Kramer said. “It turns out these calendars go all over the world. They were getting all kinds of calls from people who didn’t care about the school but wanted to know where can we get these drawings. I guess nobody had ever drawn cops like this before,” he said. “This literally was started at our kitchen table. Ginny picked 100 medium-sized cities all over the country and we sent out this little brochure to their SWAT commanders where they could order prints from us.”
Kramer had stumbled into a lucrative business that has kept him busy ever since. “It just grew and grew.”
The Kramers started selling his prints and commissioning work from their booth at tactical gear shows around the country. That led to a commission and a trip with the country of Dubai.
“They said, ‘We have the tickets and everything is paid’ for and there we were, flying business class to Dubai,” he said. “I did artwork for the guys who guard the oil wells.”
Eventually, the Kramers decided to leave Florida and moved to Leesburg about 25 years ago.
“We missed the seasons and we had some nice friends that we met at the shows and he kept sending me stuff about Leesburg,” Kramer said. “We came up here and looked around and found this house and bought it. We moved up here and business really took off.”
The Kramers no longer travel, but Dick stays busy enough in his home studio.
“I turned 80 in April and it was getting harder and harder to do the shows,” he said. “Now, I do mostly portraits and I have been going through old photos in the library. I did a drawing of a train at the station.”
Kramer said he especially enjoys working with law enforcement, tactical teams and other first-responders. “The more time I spend with them the more I love them,” Kramer said. “I also do a lot of work with the NRA. They have been very good to work with.”
As Kramer looks back over the twists and turns of his life, he marvels at the way things unfolded.
“I have flown straight up, faster than the speed of sound in an F-15,” he said. “I have met the most amazing people and Ginny and I have been able to travel all over the world. I can’t think of one thing I’ve wanted to do that I haven’t done. I’m not a wealthy man, but I’m rich as hell.”
For more information or to see more of Kramer’s art, visit DickKramer.com.