BENNINGTON, Vt. — The genial artist with the unlighted pipe in his mouth knew just what he wanted: a young, freckle-faced girl with her hair in pigtails. Her hair should be red. Her dress should be green. Her shoes should be brown.
Oh, and she should possess a sharp competitive streak and shoot a mean game of marbles.
Franklin McLenithan lived nearby and he happened to have a little girl exactly like that. His daughter’s name was Ruth.
Ruth was just 11 years old when Norman Rockwell asked a question that has become firmly and proudly embedded in the story of her long lifetime: “Do you want to model?”
“Of course, I had no idea what modeling was,’’ Ruth McLenithan Skellie told me the other day in a blessedly air-conditioned conference room at the Bennington Museum.
“But, anyway, he had found what he wanted. He said, ‘Do you have a green-and-white dress?’ And I said, ‘Yes, I do.’ And he said, ‘OK, I want you to wear that dress. I want you to leave your hair in pigtails. I want you to wear green knee socks and brown shoes that tied.’ ’’
The result appeared on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post in September 1939. The little girl in a green-and-white dress is on her knees, ready to launch another marble, ready to notch another glorious win and add to her already bulging bag of colorful little round trophies.
She wears pigtails and an expression of thin-lipped determination as two little boys peer forlornly over her shoulders, their marble bags empty, their defeat certain at the hands of a gleeful girl.
“When it first came out in the Saturday Evening Post, I was 11 years old and it didn’t really register too much because I was having such a great time,’’ said Skellie, who is 90 now and peers out with eyes that still twinkle as they did eight decades ago. “I played marbles and — as you can see — I won!’’
Skellie will join some 30 other former Rockwell models when they gather for a reunion on Saturday in nearby Arlington, where Rockwell lived from 1939 to 1953, to mark the 75th anniversary of Rockwell’s Four Freedoms paintings that are on a national tour organized by the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge.
When Rockwell moved to Arlington, he found the youthful personification of life in small-town America that helped make him one of America’s most popular artists and earned him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977.
“There was a criticism of Norman and his paintings that there really was no place like that in America,’’ said Don Trachte Jr., who will moderate a panel on Rockwell’s work Saturday at Arlington Memorial High School. “Well, I want to tell you that there was. It was a fantastic little community to live in.
“Norman Rockwell put Arlington, Vermont, on the map. He genuinely loved the people. He liked those down-to-earth, hard-working souls who had a great sense of humor about themselves.’’
Those would be the little kids, now mostly octogenarians, who once graced Rockwell paintings depicting boys carrying homemade fishing poles, or a would-be runaway confiding to a kindly policeman at a lunch counter, or a tomboy with a black eye sitting serenely and smiling outside the principal’s office.
The girl with the shiner is Mary Whalen Leonard, who posed for three Saturday Evening Post covers for Rockwell. She got $5 each time she sat for the amiable artist, eventually collected enough money — $25 – to buy herself a blue Columbia bicycle.
“I was over the moon,’’ she said. “I loved it.’’
Leonard, now 76, will be at Saturday’s reunion, where the Rockwell models will share stories — their personal pieces of Americana — that they have treasured across their lifetimes.
Mary Whalen was just 9 years old when she first met Norman Rockwell on the bleachers at a local high school basketball game. When she plaintively asked her father for a Coke just after halftime, Rockwell handed her his. It was the beginning of an artist-model relationship that landed her on three Post covers, and onto a box of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes.
She learned of her starring role in “Shiner” or “Outside the Principal’s Office’’ from a note on her teacher’s desk, summoning her — appropriately enough — to the principal’s office. The note carried this news: Don’t come home after school. Mrs. Rockwell is going to pick you up. Norman Rockwell had an idea.
“My mother left a bag of things that I was to wear for the picture,’’ Mary Whalen Leonard told me. “Norman showed me a little sketch of what he wanted me to do. It was a little sketch of a little girl sitting with a big grin on her face and he said, ‘Do you think you can make a big grin like that?’ I sat down and he said, ‘This is a little girl who got into a fight at school and even though she’s got a black eye she’s thrilled that she won the fight.’ He said, ‘Don’t you have a brother that you would like to beat up?’
“And he knew exactly the grin he wanted.’’
Rockwell, at first not satisfied with the width of Mary’s grin, coaxed it out of his young subject.
“You had this sense from the get-go that you were going to be part of something exciting, but he made it very clear that he wasn’t going to be dictating, that this was something that we were going to work out together.’’
Mary Leonard will be at Saturday’s reunion. And so will James “Buddy” Edgerton, who was a little boy when Norman Rockwell and his family moved in next door in West Arlington. They were neighbors until 1953 and the Edgertons became regular models for their artist neighbor.
“When you were modeling for Norman, he made you think you were the greatest person in the world,’’ said Edgerton, 88, who posed for Rockwell as a Boy Scout for a scouting calendar. “He acted out what he wanted. I said, ‘What am I supposed to do?’ And he said, just stand there straight and do the Pledge of Allegiance. And I said, ‘I’m not a Boy Scout. I don’t know what the Pledge is.’ ’’
The artist showed the boy. He urged him to open his eyes wider. And got the image he was looking for.
“He and (his wife) Mary were very much down to earth,’’ recalled Mary Immen Hall, another Rockwell model preparing for Saturday’s reunion. “Norman Rockwell and my dad would take turns taking tickets at the square dances on the green in West Arlington. Norman would dance with everybody. People left their kids to sleep in the cars. It was safe. It was really safe in those days.’’
That image of children sleeping as the adults square-danced nearby is straight out of a Rockwell painting, evoking images that some art snobs deride as saccharine and schmaltzy.
No matter. When he died in 1978 at the age of 84, The New York Times quoted a prominent museum director who called Rockwell the most popular artist for half a century, noting that his work “has been reproduced more often than all of Michelangelo’s, Rembrandt’s, and Picasso’s put together.’’
Trachte said he is familiar with a common question about Rockwell’s work: Was he an artist or an illustrator?
“Oh yes, he was so humble about it,’’ Trachte said. “People would criticize him and he would said, ‘Yes, I’m just an illustrator.’ He was so far beyond everybody it was incredible.’’
“Four Freedoms’’ was inspired by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1941 State of the Union Address. They depicted “Freedom of Speech,” “Freedom of Worship,’’ “Freedom from Want,’’ and “Freedom from Fear.’’
After they were printed as covers of the Saturday Evening Post in 1943, the government converted them into posters that raised $133 million for the war effort.
Not bad for an illustrator.
Not bad for the gentle man with the pipe who preserved for posterity the smiles and misfortunes of freckle-faced little kids who meet again on Saturday.
Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.