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If you were to accompany Ernie Guldbeck through the second-floor halls of the DuPage County Convalescent Center, you would quickly see that no one goes unnoticed. Ernie seems to know most residents by name and has a ready hello for each one.
Ernie, who has attended Wheaton Bible Church for nearly three decades, is an artist best known for his cartoons of the nationally recognized Keebler elves. The elves were already created when Ernie started working for Keebler, but he learned to replicate the cartoon characters and drew them for advertisements for 35 years. Coincidentally, the head elf’s name is Ernie too, which was also the name of the president of Keebler when the elves were created.
A Gift for Art
Ernie first realized his gift for art when he was in the fourth grade. His teacher asked the class to draw a picture of pumpkins, and when she saw Ernie’s picture, she knew she’d found a winner. She asked Ernie to pin it on the bulletin board for everyone to see.
“I was so embarrassed. My cheeks were purple or red,” Ernie said. “The best part of it was I quickly got over my embarrassment. I had never spoken to a girl until that day. I was just stepping out of the classroom and three girls grabbed me by the arm. All of a sudden it was ‘Oh, Ernie,’ like I’m Norman Rockwell.”
Besides drawing cartoon figures, Ernie has many other artistic talents, including painting, writing children’s books, and wood carving. He even built his home. Ernie’s friend Carl tells about the many ornate carved wood figures throughout that house, including three dragons on the roof. “It looks like a castle,” Carl said. “It’s a tiny little home, but boy has it got love in it.”
A Change in Direction
Ernie was a young man, working construction in downtown Chicago, when God first got ahold of his life. He was heading down the wrong path, which included too much beer and whiskey with friends and coworkers, when he heard a story on Pacific Garden Mission’s radio program, Unshackled, that touched his heart. After listening to the program, Ernie got down on his knees, asked the Lord to forgive him, and accepted Christ as his Savior and Lord.
In his late fifties, not long after he lost his first wife to cancer, Ernie came to Wheaton Bible Church at the recommendation of the pastor of the small church he attended, which was closing its doors.
On his first Sunday at WBC, Ernie peeked in the door of a class taught by a friend of his former pastor, but he decided there was too much gray hair in the room. As he tried to walk away, a class leader—who had been told to watch for him—greeted Ernie by name and asked him to help bring in some coffee supplies. Moments later, when a second attempt to sneak out was similarly thwarted, Ernie decided it was meant to be—and he is still part of the People’s Adult Community today, twenty-eight years later.
Despite having suffered five strokes since 1993, Ernie is still able to continue with some of his art. He doesn’t draw for Keebler anymore, but he still draws the happy elves to give to people who are not feeling well. “Half of them are tickled pink and take the picture and put it in a frame and hang it on the wall,” he says with a smile.
One time Ernie was asked by a friend to draw a cartoon so she could give it to her father who was dying of liver cancer. “Two weeks later she came to me and gave me the biggest hug,” he said. She showed Ernie a picture of her father who was sitting on his bed with a big smile, holding the cartoon Ernie had given him.
“How do you think that made me feel?” he said. “Man, if I didn’t go to bed with the biggest smile on my face.”
The Lord has truly blessed Ernie. “I’m really fortunate, I can tell you that,” Ernie said.
Although Ernie inherited his talent from his father, who was a commercial painter for an industrial advertising company, Ernie says his talent is really a gift from God—a gift that he’s still using to reach out to others in his second-floor “neighborhood”!