Chester Martin Remembers "Little Willie" King, Graphic Artist

Sunday, February 12, 2017 - by Chester Martin
One of Mr. King’s many New Year’s Samplers
One of Mr. King’s many New Year’s Samplers

There was once a time in another century when our two Chattanooga newspapers shared the same building - on East 10th Street. It was immediately behind the present Jay Solomon Federal Office Building. Each newspaper had its own staff, and, I understand that the rivalries between the two papers ran high. That is the way it should be, of course, as one was Democrat and the other Republican. I am not trying to promote political wars here, so will leave it up to YOU, dear readers, to guess which was "D" and which was "R".

(It remains exactly the same today, however, and I am supposing that you may already know, if you are a local). In those days, of the 1950s and 60s, though, the papers were totally independent of one another, while sharing the same building. The Chattanooga Times was the morning paper, and the Chattanooga News-Free Press was the afternoon paper. This scheme went on for many years, though both shared the same printing machinery. (Presses, linotypes, etc.)

Each newspaper was constantly in a battle with the other to attract new readership, and such rivalries were normal in every community throughout the country. Each newspaper was looking for ways to sell more of their product, so a continuous search went on for new talent that might help with that objective: Buddy Houts, Luther Masingill's long-time producer at WDEF, was eventually attracted away from that role and given his dream opportunity to use his wit in writing an Automotive column for the Free Press, while the Times allowed their long-time graphic artist, William "Little Willie" King, to add spice to sports, and other columns, with his clever drawings. William King was a mainstay of the Times staff for many a year.

One of Mr. King's specialties was his annual "New Year's Samplers", where he got to include all the names of every prominent (and less prominent) Chattanoogan he could think of. Everyone who had done something notable in the past year eventually got onto Little Willie's tributes to Chattanooga. Although well-remunerated for his efforts, it was a genuine labor of love, and constantly on his mind - just like a writer who constantly is composing stories in his mind. When I study the layout of one of his "samplers" I can see that it is well thought out, and he must have kept a notebook year-round of all the names he wished to include, and possibly categorized into degrees of importance. It is definitely evident that a LOT of thinking went into each year's piece, for sure, and it was considered an honor to get your name included, either in bold-face or regular size lettering. (I never knowingly made it onto his New Year's sampler!

Let it be said that all Mr. King's work was done well before the computer age, and all his layouts were products of that wonderful HUMAN eye, hand, and BRAIN co-ordination that used to dominate the world of graphic design - up until about twenty years ago. NOW you can buy a graphic arts program that will stretch or compress lettering, or curve it around to fit any given space instantaneously with just a few clicks of the mouse, while Mr. King probably wore out many a pink pearl eraser while composing his layouts by trial and error. Let's be glad he had the patience to do it, however, and left his memorable mark on the cultural life of our city. In later years, his samplers became much sought after features of every January 1st's edition of the Times, taking up a full page.

I should mention that Mr. King's counterpart as a staff artist at the Free Press was Mr. Rome Benedict, Sr.  Both men were residents of Brainerd. Mr. Benedict, on his own time, excelled at highly realistic full-length oil portraits of socialite ladies wearing stylishly elegant evening gowns. Before Hunter Museum appeared, I remember seeing an exhibition of Mr. Benedict's work in the Market Street show windows of Burchay's Furriers. All were commissioned pieces on loan from their owners.

Sorry for the big crease in the photo of Mr. King's work; did not attempt to get it out as the old newsprint paper is highly breakable. I think you might be able to recognize some of the larger names shown - a lot are gone now, but many remain. I want to mention that the appellation, "sampler" I have attached to this sort of work is purely of my own devising; he probably had another more descriptive word for it. Anyway, it was fun to look at every New Year's Day!

(Chester Martin is a native Chattanoogan who is a talented painter as well as local historian. He and his wife, Pat, live in Brainerd. Mr. Martin can be reached at cymppm@comcast.net )


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