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Models for Norman Rockwell’s portraits reunite

Buddy Edgerton (left) and Mike McGuire chatted at the reunion.

Aram Boghosian for the Boston Globe

Buddy Edgerton (left) and Mike McGuire chatted at the reunion.

ARLINGTON, VT. — It’s an iconic painting used by the Boy Scouts of America for decades: A teenage boy with a steady gaze and a neat Scout uniform, right hand aloft in a proud three-finger salute.

But Buddy Edgerton, 82, arrived in Arlington on Saturday morning with a little secret.

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“Oh, I wasn’t a Boy Scout!” he declared. “I was only a Boy Scout when Norman Rockwell wanted me to be a Boy Scout.”

Edgerton was among 20 people who gathered Saturday at Arlington’s Sugar Shack and Norman Rockwell Exhibition to celebrate the experience from long ago that they all hold in common: Each had posed as a model for the lauded painter, who lived for more than a decade in this small town on the western edge of the Green Mountains.

Rockwell, known for his realistic depictions of every­day people and domestic scenes, used about 300 people to pose for photos that he used to make his paintings over his career, said Edgerton.About 70 of those models are still living, and many have gathered for at least one of the handful of reunions that have taken place in the last few decades, he said.

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At the reunion in Arlington, nametags proclaimed “I was a model” above a thumbnail of the painting in which the model appeared. Most of the former models hailed from nearby towns, snapping photos with one another and autographing Rockwell prints.

In a scene straight out of, well, a Norman Rockwell painting, they sat at tables in a cozy restaurant eating turkey and mashed potatoes at Jonathon’s Table as they shared stories of the friendly neighbor and family friend who paid $5 a pop for sittings, whether the model was adult, child, or pet.

‘Oh, I wasn’t a Boy Scout! I was only a Boy Scout when Norman Rockwell wanted me to be a Boy Scout.’

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The painter found his models at local events, such as square dances and Halloween parties — “He sold tickets, he swept the floor, and he also kept an eye out for models,” Edgerton said — but some answered to a more specific call.

Siblings Paul Adams and Pauline Adams Grimes of Cambridge, N.Y., just a few miles away, were discovered by Rockwell as he cast characters for what would ­become the 1961 painting “Golden Rule,” an allegory for peace and respect across ­nationalities, races, and cultures.

Rockwell hoped to find black children, and the Adams were one of the few African-American families in the ­region. Now, the siblings said, they are proud to be a part of the Rockwell canon.

At the time, however, they were more excited about Rockwell’s offer: In addition to $5, he told them that if they sat still for the photos, they could each take a bottle of Coca-Cola from a snowbank outside his house.

As they walked to get a taxi home, their mother, not hearing Rockwell’s promise, scolded Paul for trying to take a soda. He recalled a disappointing ride home, but Pauline remembers differently.

“I think I snuck one,” she smiled.

Many bore an uncanny likeness to their painted images. Donald Fisher has the same wide eyes he had when he posed as a young man leaving for college in “Breaking Home Ties,” a painting that sold at ­Sotheby’s in 2006 for $15.4 million.

And while Mary Whalen Leonard, 70, has aged a bit since she posed for Rockwell’s “The Shiner” — a painting of a girl sitting next to the principal’s office, pigtails a mess and uniform askew with an iridescent black eye — she still has the same impish grin.

“I just remember that day that he was trying to get me to smile, and I think Vermonters aren’t known for great grins,” Whalen said. “He was on his hands and knees trying to make me laugh.”

For many, appearing in a Rockwell portrait was a familial rite of passage.

Ken Gottry Jr.recalled that his mother, a model in the painting “Walking to Church,” had her feet propped on the edges of fat books to appear as if she was mid-step. And Buddy Edgerton was one of four generations of Edgertons to pose as models, a title held by no other family save the Rockwells themselves.

His son, Jim Edgerton, 57, also had a confession about his Rockwell appearance: “I’m a complete fraud, because I had to borrow a Cub Scout uniform!”

Most have experienced ­minor celebrity because of their claim to fame: Many have appeared on television recounting their time with the painter.

Freeman Grout of ­Randolph, Vt., was featured in two paintings. His wife, Jean, knew all the details. “What year is this one, again?” he asked, pawing a postcard of another Boy Scout depiction to his chest for a photograph.

“Ninteen-forty-nine. How come I have to know all this?” she laughed. “And don’t wrinkle it. Gosh, hold it up there.”

Still, she said, it makes her proud to know Rockwell saw something special in her husband. “He’s still handsome,” she said.

Martine Powers can be reached at mpowers@globe.com.
Follow her on Twitter
@martinepowers.
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