Like so many of Norman Rockwell’s illustrations for the Saturday Evening Post, the picture seemed to sum up an entire American institution. In this case, it was the family doctor, the local medical sage who did everything from delivering babies to dressing dog bites. For 50 years, the model for Rockwell’s painting Before the Shot, Dr. Donald Campbell, fulfilled that honored role for the town of Stock-bridge, Mass. But last month, on his 83rd birthday, Campbell announced that he was retiring.
“There’s no use stretching it out,” says Campbell, whose wife, Anna, died in January. “I thought it was getting to the stage where it was about time to quit. At my age, the memory starts to go. I hate to see those good days slip by, though.”
Campbell, who posed for Rockwell in 1958, remembers the lanky artist as a popular figure in Stockbridge, where Rockwell lived for 25 years until his death in 1978. “We all liked the son of a gun,” he says. “He’d ride his bike to his office above the grocery store every day, as regular as clockwork. He was a hardworking guy, but always ready with smile and a hello, always time to talk. There was certainly a lot of the milk of human kindness in his veins.”
Campbell was Rockwell’s friend and real-life physician, as well as his model for Before the Shot and several lesser-known works. Rather than pose his subjects for hours, Rockwell would bring a photographer, set up a shot and work from the pictures. “I’d do anything to help him out, but he insisted on paying his models,” says Campbell. “I got 10 bucks.” Campbell and a neighbor’s son, Edward Locke, posed for Before the Shot in Campbell’s home office, where he practiced right to the end. Rockwell took a bit of artistic license, including changing the color of the floor, moving a desk and adding a window, but otherwise reproduced the scene faithfully. After the painting ran on the Post’s cover, Rockwell gave it to Campbell as a gift. In 1962 Campbell was trying to raise money to open a new nursing home in the area, and Rockwell suggested that he might be able to sell the painting in New York. “I said, ‘Take it,’ ” recalls Campbell. “He got me $10,000. It’s probably worth $100,000 or $200,000 now.”
Yet to Campbell, whose third of four daughters, Betsy, also appeared on a Rockwell Post cover, the most valuable Rockwell work is one that was never published. “When Betsy was 4 or 5 years old, a little dog chased her as she rode her bike down the street,” he remembers. “Norman came along, calmed her tears and then put her on his knee. He drew her a series of pictures, of a little girl riding a bicycle, then being chased by a dog and falling off the bike. The last panel showed the dog licking the little girl’s face, and he said, ‘See? The dog only wanted to kiss.’ That was typical of Norman’s spontaneous kindness.”