George Letness worked with and befriended a young Charles Schulz and for 50 years was one of the best-known commercial illustrators in the Twin Cities, helping to create such iconic images as Count Chocula and Franken Berry.
Known for nimbleness, he got tapped by ad agencies to quickly produce television storyboards and worked for 3M, General Mills and other local corporate giants.
Letness died May 24 of complications from cancer. He was 85.
After leaving the Navy, Letness used his GI Bill benefits to graduate from what is now the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. He then began teaching at the Art Instruction School.
In a biography of Schulz, creator of the "Peanuts" comic, author David Michaelis noted Letness' influence during the Art Instruction period in Minneapolis.
"He had arrived at the desk adjoining Schulz's in 1949, displacing Sparky as the shyest man in the room," Michaelis wrote. "Both were simultaneously reticent and competitive, displayed comparable senses of humor, and eventually became the 'two best friends' among the younger instructors."
At the school, Letness also met his wife, Genevieve, herself an accomplished artist. In the later 1950s he illustrated several comic strips for the Catholic Publications. He worked in the advertising department at the Minneapolis Star in the early 1960s, illustrating a Sunday comics wrapper. Working for the Studio One ad agency, he drew for a variety of Fortune 500 clients, until 1974, when he incorporated as George Letness Illustration.
Son Jon Letness later worked with his father at the studio they founded, Graphics440. Jon said his dad constantly doodled, even while watching TV.
"It was almost like a compulsion for him," Jon said.
In his later years, George Letness often produced drawings his son would digitize onto computer. One of his final clients was the former Lutheran Brotherhood, which commissioned him to draw Lutheran churches celebrating 100th anniversaries.
Another son, Tom, owns the Heights Theater in Columbia Heights, where George Letness' watercolors of Clark Gable, Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo still grace the lobby. Tom Letness said his father stayed in touch with Schulz and his wife, but his father talked about his famous colleague only when pressed.
"He wasn't the type to name drop," Tom Letness said. "He was competitive from the point of view that he wanted to be the best for himself, but he wasn't the type of person where he would say, 'I am going to be competitive so I can run over another person.' That wasn't his style at all. His real legacy was the art he left behind."
He was buried May 31 in Resurrection Cemetery. Survivors, besides sons Jon and Tom, include son Joseph; a daughter, Cathy Krenzel; and a sister, Kathryn Schwappach.
Mark Brunswick • 612-673-4434