By Jared Olar
An accomplished and talented artist’s framed watercolor that was donated recently to the Pekin Public Library – a maritime scene of sailboats offshore – bears the artist’s signature in the bottom right corner: “C. H. Ropp.”
This watercolor was donated by David and Connie Perkins of Pekin, who had purchased it in June 2013 at a yard sale held by Gene and Joan Goodale, also of Pekin. The Ropp watercolor was one of several items that had been left in the Goodales’ attic by Mr. Velde, the former owner of their house.
The artist’s name in full was Clarence Hubert Ropp (1894-1973), but his friend and fellow member of Pekin High School’s Class of 1913 Everett McKinley Dirksen recalled that Ropp dropped the “Clarence” and went by his middle name instead. Throughout his career in the art world, he was usually known as Hubert Ropp or C. H. Ropp. The son of Aaron and Catherine (Schrock) Ropp, he was born on a farm two miles east of Pekin on Allentown Road. Hubert Ropp’s obituary in the Pekin Daily Times reports that the old Ropp home, “the first house on the north side of the road, east of the railroad tracks crossing Allentown road,” had been torn down some years before Ropp’s death.
It’s fitting that Ropp and Dirksen were friends. They are the best remembered members of their graduating class, and even in high school it became clear that fate held good things in store for them. The 1913 Pekinian shows that Ropp was president of his class and Dirksen was vice president. A short but glowing comment at the end of the list of Ropp’s high school activities says, “He has more nicknames than any other student in High School. This goes to show that he is very popular. As an artist he is superb; as a musician, nothing is beyond him. Verily, he is a born genius and will some day become a celebrated man. Here’s to him.”
Ropp was editor-in-chief and illustrator of the Pekinian that year, but it would have been most unseemly for him to have written the words of praise in his yearbook. (A Chicago Tribune story at the time of Ropp’s retirement in 1959 calls him “as modest as he is great.”) Most likely it was another member of the yearbook staff who had the task of penning the memorials of the senior class. In any event, the words of high praise in the yearbook were a faithful portrait and would prove to be a true prophecy of his life.
During their high school years, Ropp and Dirksen showed an interest in the theater, both having roles in “The Colonel’s Maid,” the high school play, during their junior year. After graduation, Dirksen tried his hand as a playwright and wished to become an actor, but his mother regarded the theater as a wicked line of work and dissuaded him from that career path. Still feeling an attraction to the theater, however, Dirksen collaborated with Ropp on a production for Pekin’s Centennial celebrations in 1924, a pageant called “1,000 Years Ago.” Dirksen and his future wife Louella Carver were the stars of the show, which was directed by Ropp, who also painted the scenery. Publications on Dirksen’s life characterize the show as “more noted for bringing Dirksen together with the future Mrs. Dirksen than for the quality of the show.” In his later years, Ropp did an oil painting of his old friend Dirksen.
After the death of Ropp’s father, he and his mother moved to Chicago, where he attended the Art Institute of Chicago. According to a biographical sketch by Bruce Allen at AskArt.com, after graduating from the institute, Ropp studied in Paris and Vienna. Returning to Chicago, Ropp became Dean of the National Academy of Art, and then in 1942 he was named Dean of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. According to Allen, Ropp was an innovator in his field. “As a dean,” Allen writes, “Mr. Ropp expanded the curriculum of the school by adding more contemporary design classes, as well as a variety of courses that catered primarily to war veterans who were enrolled in great numbers under the GI Bill.”
During his tenure as Dean, the school became the largest of its kind in the U.S. When he retired from his position in 1959, the school had a student enrollment of 4,908 and a staff of 101, according to a Chicago Tribune report dated Aug. 17, 1959, entitled, “Hubert Ropp Ending Art Institute Career,” by Edith Weigle.
“Each year, as the students’ own show is staged in the east wing galleries,” Weigle wrote, “Dean Ropp’s creative mind has made it tick. It is he who has arranged the artistic and highly original decorative accents in the galleries, backgrounds against which each student’s work is shown to best advantage, and it is he who personally had added the finished touches that give the exhibition a professional air.”
After retirement, Ropp painted and worked in artistic crafts from a studio near Libertyville, Ill. At the end of his life, Ropp lived in Lake Bluff, Ill. He died June 22, 1973. His obituary in the Pekin Daily Times that day observed that he died “the same day that President Nixon came to Pekin on the invitation of Louella Carver Dirksen to honor the memory of her husband.” Ropp’s aunt, Mrs. Barbara (Schrock) Heisel of Pekin, received word of his death just as she was about to send him clippings about the laying of the Pekin Public Library’s cornerstone.