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                                        The following excerpt is taken from Wilmer’s artist statement, and is written by him.  

   “I was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on January 20, 1891.  (Wilmer was the second oldest of five children.) When I was 10 yrs old my German father had a piano sent home, and I was told to learn how to play it!  My love of drawing and copying pictures, which was rare in those days, was not taken into consideration.”   ( Wilmer’s father thought of sketching as a hobby and a waste of time.  He was very disappointed in his son’s decision to pursue a career in art over music.)


   “My brother, two years older than me was sawing away on a violin.  I knew there was no way out, so I practiced, supposedly an hour after school.  I learned so quickly that my mother let me off with only a half hour practice.  My mother and a ninth grade teacher were responsible for pushing me into studying art as a profession.  Meanwhile, we learned to play music well enough for my brother, who went to a conservatory, to form a dance band with members of the family.”

     “At 151/2 years of age I was sent to work as an office boy in a sugar refinery.  Soon I was writing orders and doing the bookkeeping.  At 18 I went to work in a photo-engraving art department, and I also went to art school at night for several years.  I was fired from this job in 1913 for being “fresh” to the shop foreman.” 


   (Grandson Lee Richter remembers hearing the story about the incident.  “Grandpa was working in a print shop.  His job was doing halftones on print plates.  The job required putting small dots of wax on a metal plate that would be etched with a chemical he called Dragon’s Breath.  He had done a large, tedious piece which the shop foreman screwed up by leaving the etching solution on the plate too long.  The result was it undercut the halftones.  He was told to re-do the plate!  When he finished he went to his boss and told him to ‘not let him (the foreman)  f*** it up again.  Can you imagine the power of dropping an “f bomb” in 1909?  He got fired!”


   “I had been paid $12 a week, but since I had learned a lot about commercial art, I knew I was worth more.  Just a block away was another photo-engraving company.  I knew the art director, as he was going to the same art school at Broad and Pine Streets (Philadelphia). I showed a sample of my work to him, and asked for twenty dollars a week.  He hired me for a week’s trial, then offered the job to me for eighteen dollars a week.”


   (Lee recalls this story retold many times.  Gpa took his portfolio to another print shop.  “Is this really your work?”  “Yes.”  “How much do you want?”  “$20.00 per week.”  The owner laughed as that was the salary of a master printer at the time.  “I’ll give you $9.00 for one week, then we’ll talk about wages.  At the end of the week, Gpa held out at $20/week.  He was hired at $18!)


   “We did a great deal of work for the Victor Talking Machine Company (now RCA).  This was the campaign to introduce the new radio.

 All summer we painted opera scenes for the Book of the Opera.  The German magazine had artists make drawings of opera scenes.  From these images, we made pictures of the different operas.  At the time photography had not advanced far enough to take pictures in a theater."

This picture recently found in a 1918 photo album appears to picture opera singers in costume.  Wilmer describes sketching scenes like this all summer. At this time we do not have any of the actual sketches. 

The last line of the artist statement follows.

"After a year at this studio, I wanted to spend a year in the illustration class at Art School, so I quit and never regretted it.”


From left to right back row: Father, Herman SR.; Brothers, Herman and Ralph; Wilmer 

Front row: Sister, Ann; Mother, Sophie; Sister, Florence

Very little is known about Wilmer's family.  This is what we believe to be true.  

We know Herman Sr. immigrated from Germany. Herman was a farmer and a ferrier (horseshoer) by trade.  As a member of the Prussian army, he had the opportunity to shoe Kaiser Wilhelm's horse.   The Kaiser berated Herman for what he felt was the improper shoeing of his horse.  In response, Herman told the Kaiser, "he didn't know shit about shoeing horses." His army buddies  convinced him he "better get out of the army FAST."  He deserted and immigrated on a freighter to the US, arriving in Philadelphia. 

What we don't know is whether he was married at the time or more likely if he was single when he immigrated. We know his wife Sophie was also German. It is unknown if they already knew each other or if they met in the US. Upon arrival, Herman acquired land to farm on the outskirts of Philadelphia. How or where he got his money is unknown. He became a US citizen on September 27, 1886. See a photocopy of this document below. 

Herman Richter's certificate of citizenship 

Herman and Sophie had 5 children, 3 boys, and 2 girls. He was very fond of classical music, especially Beethoven, and encouraged his children to learn to play musical instruments. The oldest son, Herman Jr, played the violin and did go to the conservatory to study. It is believed the second son, Ralph also played an instrument (probably the violin or base) and was in the family band. Wilmer learned to play the piano, beginning at age 10.  Patricia Meland, a neighbor from Lakeland Florida, remembered Wilmer could play the violin as a boy.  One of the artist statements, written by Wilmer, discusses how he was only allowed to sketch and paint after practicing the piano every night after school. Below is a copy of a program dated 29 December 1901.  Both Wilmer and his older brother Herman are featured in the program.  Since the piano was purchased in 1901, it is likely Wilmer played both the violin and piano at this recital. 

A recital program dated 1901

It is curious to me that the family has sufficient resources to pay for lessons and a piano in 1901. Did they come from "old money" or did Herman become a successful farmer, and/or continue to serve as the local ferrier? How did he acquire sufficient means to raise 5 children comfortably? (I hope the girls had some of the same opportunities as the boys.) We do know this "old school" German father required his children to turn over their paychecks to him. He gave them some spending money from this income. 

Around 1905, the oldest brother Herman Jr formed a dance band. In one of his Artist's Statements, Wilmer credits this money as paying for his art education at night school. Grandson, Lee Richter remembers the family story about how the group disbanded. "It was a fight over money and a mortgage payment."

Two years after returning from the war, Wilmer married in 1921. His bride Caroline was the best friend of one of his sisters. One year later, Wilmer C Richter was born. Sisters Dorrit and Carol followed. 

Wife, Caroline; 2-year-old son, Wilmer C. (Bus); Wilmer S. Richter 

The culture of the times would see the oldest son (Herman Jr, Wilmer's oldest brother) inherit all of the estates of his parent. It is unknown when Wilmer's parents died, or if he inherited any part of their estate. We do know he was a gifted illustrator, lithographer, and painter who earned an exceptional income for the time. 

Early Education

Piecing together Wilmer’s education has been a challenge.  In his artist statements he recalls sketching and copying art at age eight.  That would be in 1899.  He went to public school in Philadelphia until age 15, and credits his Mother, as well as his 9th grade teacher with recognizing his extraordinary  talent and encouraging him to pursue art over music as a potential career.   At 15 1/2 (1906) he quit public school because his father found him a job as an office boy at a sugar refinery.  It paid $3 per week.  “Soon I was writing orders and doing the bookkeeping.”  At 18 (1909) he took a job with a North Philadelphia photo-engraving art company (name?), where he learned his trade, commercial art.  This job lasted 4 or 5 years.  When the job ended (1913), he was making $12/week.  During this time he had been taking art classes at night for at least 7 years.  The art school he was attending in 1913 was at the Museum School of Industrial Arts in Philadelphia at Broad Street and Pine.   


In 1913 he was hired at another photo-engraving company about a block away.  He knew the art director as he was attending the same art school at night.  The 1-week trial ended with a job offer at $18/week, a master printer’s salary at the time. After a year he recalled, “I wanted to spend a year in the illustration class at the Art School, so I quit and never regretted it.” (1914)  This is the first time he was a full-time day student, dedicated to perfecting his trade. It is most likely he continued to attend the Museum School of Industrial Arts at Broad Street and Pine. We do not know when he started attending the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, School of Design and Landscape Painting. At the Academy,  he studied under W. H. Everett, Daniel Garber, Joseph T. Pearson, and George Obersteuffer.  In one of the articles about his life published in 1989 it states, “He also studied at the Philadelphia State School and the Philadelphia School of Fine Arts.”  We cannot place this information as to the years attended.  He did clarify that, “I paid my way through art school by playing {piano} in my brother’s orchestra.”


There are many unlabeled sketches (100s) owned by the family, but only a few are identified as “Art School Projects”.  One is dated 1916.”   The effort to place a year to these other works (many I believe were published) is ongoing.  It is clear Wilmer was a gifted, prolific illustrator, able to sketch complex photo-like pictures for publication early in his career.   He also painted, especially in oils and watercolors.  We have located only a few of these early works.


In some of his artist’s statements, Wilmer recalls that he “attended several schools in Europe”.   Their names and locations are unknown.   I know he did extensive traveling in Europe, Mexico, Cuba, Canada and the US before and after getting married.  His marriage took place after WWI.  He would have been 29 or older.


(Grandson Lee Richter explains how Wilmer lived with his parents until his marriage.  He turned his paycheck over to his  “old school German” father and was given a portion for his own use.  We do not know if he saved for his travel expenses out of this allowance, of if his father also supported it with money he had saved from his son’s earnings.  Keep in mind, he was also in his older brother’s dance band.  Earnings from this venue probably contributed to his travel expenses as well as art school.}  

First known watercolor of Venice. 

  Sketches of projects from school.

Text by Linda Ham with info gathered from various newspaper articles


Travel as a young man, around 1916


The year as a full time student was about 1915.  At the end of that year Wilmer started to travel.  I quote from one of his artist statements,


“Having saved enough money, I wanted to travel.  I took a ship to Cuba where I was to transfer to another ship going through the Panama Canal and on to California.  However, the second one left too early, and since I would have had to wait three weeks for the next one, I went instead to New Orleans.  From there, on the Santa Fe Railroad, I explored California, Colorado, and the states in between on my way back to Philadelphia.”


In some of the other travel posts, Wilmer stated he crossed the USA 6 times, this being the first in 1916.  He spoke of loving the West more than any other part of this country.  I have not found any records as to how long he stayed away.  He did return to work after this trip.  “Having many job offers, I was hired at $46/week.”  World War I was in progress.   Soon after his return, in 1918 he was drafted at age 27.  His sketching ability played a key role during his year in France.  The sketchbook from WWI was one of his prize possessions, and is still owned by the family.  Many of these sketches were published by the Saturday Evening Post.  


  Be sure to check out the fascinating story about his WWI experience.

War Years

Wilmer in uniform.

World War One Draftee



In 1917  Wilmer wrote a letter to the editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer condemning the US entering the war in Europe.  It was published.  (I plan to search archives to see if it still exists.)  He was turning 27, and men his age were not being called up at that time.  On April 1, 1918, he was drafted into the infantry and sent to Fort Mead, Maryland for basic training.  


Grandson Lee Richter described what happened as told to him by Wilmer.  Because of the letter “the BOI (Bureau of Investigation which later became the FBI) went to his employer asking to have him fired.  His boss like Grandpa was of German descent. No luck there.  The BOI did the next best thing.  They went to the local draft board and had him drafted.  Grandpa was older than the typical WWI draftee.  It didn’t matter.”

“As Grandpa told me the story, the US was totally unprepared for war.  Arriving at boot camp, draftees were not given uniforms or boots.  Given that they were all wearing ‘city shoes’ long marches were out.  They were taught close order drill and saluting.  The rifle range was another interesting aspect of training.  They were issued wood rifles with wooden sights.  He was taught to line up the sights on the target and then one shouted BANG!”

“Come the end of basic training they still didn’t have uniforms.  They were marched down to the quarter masters and handed uniforms.  Grandpa got suspicious when he was given 2 pairs of boots.  He really wondered what to hell was going on when he was issued 2 rifles.  A man was literally loaded down with all he could physically carry.  They were loaded onto trucks and taken to the Philadelphia port where they were loaded onto a British ship bound for France.   The army was paying a flat rate for each man and his gear, and separate fees for cargo.  The US army was sending replacement gear without declaring it as cargo.”

“On board the ship Grandpa’s sergeant decided it would be a good idea to clean the packing grease off the rifles and actually fire them.  Grandpa, being the know-it-all he was said, ’Sir, won’t the rifles rust in salt air?’  The response being, ‘You hear that men, don’t clean your rifle.’  Grandpa arrived in France never having fired a gun in his life.”

“Grandpa said his early assignment was guarding artillery in the rear, miles from the front.  One had to stand on bent knees as an artillery salvo literally shook the ground.  Mouth open, fingers in the ears was the way to avoid being deafened. Then came the fateful day.  (July 15, 1918) They were marched to a location where they were to make an advance.  None of the men, sergeants included, had combat experience.  They were formed into parallel ranks.  Fixed bayonet, rifle held at the hip.  Grandpa was in the second rank about 5 yds behind the first.  They advanced across an open field toward an apple orchard.  Like lambs to slaughter, they walked toward the orchard.  The Germans had machine guns in the trees.  They had ‘high ground', and a downward slanting line of fire.  In a matter of seconds, the rank ahead of Grandpa was mowed down.  Due to the angle of fire, the first rank was hit in the torso, most killed.  Grandpa’s rank was hit in the legs.  Grandpa was shot through the foot.  I think it was the right.”


Wilmer was evacuated to Hospital 13 where he spent the remainder of his time in Limoges, France.  In many ways, the next part of his war story is even more interesting.  


The image below is a copy of the telegram notifying his mother he had been wounded.


Photos from the recently found 1918 photo album

WW1 Bomber

Hospital Days, Piano Man, Morale Booster

Having never shot a gun in his life, Wilmer arrived in France as an infantry man.  His first assignment was far from the front, but on July 15, 1918, he was gassed and wounded.  Machine gun fire penetrated his foot.  He was lucky.  Many of the men in the rank ahead of him were killed.  He was transported to a base hospital nearby.  


It did not take long for Wilmer to make himself useful.  When the staff realized he was a gifted pianist, the opportunity to play for the hospital ward was encouraged. He entertained the troops many times a day.  His ability to boost morale was welcome and appreciated by all.  He began to sit with other wounded soldiers and copy letters dictated by those who were unable to write.  He often included sketches in these letters.  Either the hospital staff or a trip to town enabled him to secure watercolor paints, paper, and a sketchbook.  Because his injury was not life-threatening, he was busy and productive, sketching, and painting almost from day one. He often gifted many of these paintings to the soldiers.  (I wonder if any could be found?)


On occasion, army staffers would go to hospitals to collect the “walking wounded”.  Wilmer would clearly be considered “ready for combat.”  The hospital staff placed him in a wheelchair, covered his legs with an afghan, and kept him out of harm's way.  He spent the next 6 months avoiding combat, entertaining the troops, and boosting morale.


In one of his Artist’s Statements, Wilmer briefly described his war experience.  “I was gassed and wounded on July 15, 1918.  I spent the rest of the year at the base hospital, drawing X-rays, playing the piano, and having a good time.   (Later, my son called this the longest vacation I ever had.)  No one ever asked me my name or what I was doing.  I had a pocket full of passes which I wrote and signed, not only for myself but for others who wanted to go into town.  When the fighting ceased, I was on the first ship (a freighter) to return the wounded to the US.”    


Grandson Lee recalls Wilmer’s story about returning from the war.  “Arriving back in the States, troops were being demobilized straight off the boat.  The lines were days long!  There was one lieutenant who had a particularly long line because of his magnificent penmanship.  Grandpa disobeyed every private’s maxim ‘never volunteer for anything’.  He showed the lieutenant a sample of his penmanship and was immediately helping him fill out discharge papers which the lieutenant signed.  Grandpa being Grandpa slipped his own papers into the pile.  After it was signed he asked permission to go pee and left the army behind!”    


With his uniform still on, Wilmer went directly to the office of the Saturday Evening Post.

Staff and presumably fellow patients from Hospital 13 in Limoges, France

Graveyard for Hospital 13 in Limoges, France 

A physician and his wife from Hospital 13 with Wilmer in Limoges, France

Post-War image, presumably in Limoges, France