The creator of Woodstock’s most memorable marmot has died.

Jim Pearson, a retired Woodstock High School art teacher and longtime editorial cartoonist for The Woodstock Independent, died May 19. He was 77.

Pearson drew the familiar cartoon of Woodstock Willie, the buck-toothed critter whose image adorns sweatshirts, coffee mugs, hot sauce bottles, baseball caps, magnets, shot glasses and more as the mascot for Groundhog Days.

Woodstock Willie’s cartoon persona came into being more than two decades ago. Maggie Crane, who helps to organize the annual Groundhog Days celebration, said the Woodstock Groundhog Days Committee has used the image for at least 10 years.

“Jim gave the committee permission to use it,” Crane said. She estimates Pearson’s drawing of Woodstock Willie has appeared on about 20 different souvenirs over the years, not to mention banners, signs and other Groundhog Days materials. 

But like many people in Woodstock, Crane remembers Pearson for his other work, too.
“I knew Jim for his oil paintings,” Crane said. Some of Pearson’s paintings of local landmarks are on display at the Woodstock Public Library.

Pearson was born Dec. 12, 1939, in Woodstock, the son of John and Arline Pearson. A lifelong resident of Ringwood, he studied art at Northern Illinois University and taught the subject at WHS for 31 years, retiring in 1994.  

Former WHS Assistant Principal Ron Bendis worked with Pearson for about two decades. 

“Jim really loved art,” Bendis said. “I think he put a lot of effort into art. With certain students, he really clicked.”

After retiring from teaching, Pearson joined the staff of this newspaper, contributing more than 1,100 editorial cartoons from 1994 to 2016. His topics ranged from political wrangling to community events to high school sports, but come February, they almost invariably featured a smiling Woodstock Willie celebrating Groundhog Day.

“Not many newspapers had editorial cartoonists anymore when Jim started drawing for us,” wrote Dennis Mathes, an editor of The Independent from 1993 to 1999 who now works as the sports editor for the Jacksonville Journal-Courier. “He was extremely easy to work with, and his cartoons always hit the mark. Sometimes people got a little upset about what he drew — that’s what a good editorial cartoonist does. But I know that some of those same people later asked him for the original drawings because they admired and respected his work, like we all did.”

“Jim was a good friend. He was patient, intelligent and caring, and was always willing to listen and offer an opinion,” Mathes continued. “I never knew him to get angry or raise his voice — ever. He was quick to offer a smile or a joke, and always had a unique perspective. He will be missed.”

Cheryl Wormley, publisher of The Independent, said Pearson’s work was an important part of Woodstock.

“Jim knew Woodstock and Woodstock knew Jim,” Wormley said. “He was the go-to-artist for everyone’s special projects, so his works grace homes, businesses and scrapbooks. He used his talents for the benefit of others and the community. We are so fortunate to be the heirs. “

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