They're an odd combination, this Ray Stumpf and Charles Kapsner.

One's a retired Navy vet turned local schoolteacher, the other is a lifelong artist. One favors a crew cut and bushy mustache, the other wears his hair long and straight and tucked neatly under a beret. Even when talking politics, one leans right, the other left.

But since meeting nearly three months ago, Stumpf and Kapsner have become fast friends, bonded by a curiosity for each other's line of work and a passion for an elaborate oil painting that both hope will become part of their legacy.

"I don't know why it really works, but it does," said Bob Mueller, a friend who introduced the men in December at Kapsner's art studio. "They are just two passionate people."

Stumpf, a retired engineer's aide and underwater construction diver for the U.S. Navy, has spent the past six weeks sitting as a studio model for Kapsner as he paints an 8-by-10-foot naval scene that will eventually be displayed at the Committal Hall at the Minnesota State Veterans Cemetery north of town. It's one of five oil paintings Kapsner has been commissioned to paint as part of a nearly $500,000 veterans project depicting the history of each branch of the U.S. military —Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force and Coast Guard.

For Kapsner, a stickler for detail, the chance to use a vet to model and research and document the nation's naval history is about as good as it gets.

"The veterans bring a whole living element to the painting that people can relate to," he said.

For Stumpf, an industrial technology teacher at the local middle school who is battling terminal colon cancer, it's a chance to pull on his dress blues and his "Dixie cup" sailor's cap a few more times and give something back while he still has the stamina. When chemotherapy treatments stopped working five months ago, Stumpf quit, choosing to live out his final months on his terms.

"It just didn't make sense," he said of continuing with the chemotherapy. "So I figured I'll treat it like a miniature retirement and enjoy the time I have."

Hitting it off

Although Stumpf, 56, and Kapsner, 60, both grew up in this Mississippi River town about 100 miles north of the Twin Cities, they didn't meet until December, when Mueller, a longtime friend of both, took Stumpf to the art studio to offer Kapsner perspective on a Navy diver's helmet the artist wanted to put in the painting.

The two immediately hit it off, and not long after, Kapsner asked Stumpf if he'd model as he sketched the image of a "lone sailor" gazing across a shoreline and waters marked by the faces and ships of Navy veterans and vessels past.

"How many guys get an opportunity to model at 56?" cracked Stumpf, who's been teaching only a few hours each day because of his illness.

The naval scene is the second of the five paintings Kapsner will create. The first — depicting the history of the U.S. Army — was put on display at the cemetery in 2010.

On a recent afternoon, Stumpf sat on a stool a few feet from Kapsner as the artist worked to find the right mix of paint to match the deep indigo of Stumpf's uniform. Working with light from a skylight above and a nearby window, Kapsner was careful to get it just right.

"It's real easy to trip through something or slop through," he said. "We want to truly pay homage historically to what is going on here."

Music played softly in the background and the men shared stories — of growing up in Little Falls, the military, good food and fine wine.

"Charles likes to cook and I like to eat," Stumpf said, laughing.

Both are fond of old cars — Stumpf has two old Pontiacs and Kapsner a 34-year-old Mercedes — and compared notes on repairs and maintenance.

Stumpf joked, too, about his career path — from Navy scuba diver to middle school teacher.

"I tell people it took me 23½ years in the Navy to get ready to teach middle school," he said, chuckling.

Eventually, the talk circled back to the painting.

Details matter. Everything, from the color of the ribbons and order of the medals on an admiral's uniform to the proper placement of the signal flags on the U.S.S. Constitution, is meticulously researched and documented. Kapsner does much of it, but Stumpf has helped, too, making phone calls and searching the Internet and offering suggestions for adding details — such as putting a tiny bosun's whistle, a largely ceremonial whistle that was once used by naval officers as a way to communicate, into the painting.

"It's an amazing amount of work to get it right," he said.

But it's important. To the families who visit the cemetery and to historians.

"The more accurate information he has today, the easier it becomes for historians in the future to decipher what we're all about," Stumpf said.

'Oddly wrapped gift'

Stumpf has modeled more than a dozen times so far, sitting for as long as 2½ hours on any given day.

Over the weeks, Kapsner's lone sailor has slowly taken on Stumpf's features and profile.

"He gets it," Stumpf said of Kapsner's work. "My squinty eye, the shape of my nose, my big bushy mustache. It's incredible."

The modeling work will end soon, as Kapsner moves forward with the painting. Even so, Stumpf plans to continue to help with research and chart progress. Recently, he agreed to write the essay that will accompany the painting.

"He's a prince of a man," Susan Prosapio, a Little Falls resident who helps with project fundraising, said of Stumpf. "And he will always shine as that image of the lone sailor."

Stumpf calls his cancer "the oddly wrapped gift," adding, "The way I look at it, if I didn't have the cancer, I wouldn't have had the time to participate in this thing."

Kapsner, too, said he feels blessed.

He said it will probably take him until late summer to finish the painting, and he knows that Stumpf may not live long enough to see it through. But his hope is that his friend will at least see the final image of himself on the canvas before he becomes too ill.

"I've never gotten so close to someone so fast," Kapsner said. "In an odd way, it's been a gift for me, too."

Richard Meryhew • 612-673-4425