BIDDEFORD — Rod Williams met Carolyn Ruth at a street dance in Millinocket in 1951 and was immediately smitten.

She was 15. He was 19, on leave from the Navy and shipping out again to the Caribbean three days later. He worried that she’d soon forget him. He decided, as he often has in matters of vital importance, to trust his art.

“I had been in the Navy a year at that point, and all my girlfriends had deserted me. They all wrote me Dear Johns or they just stopped writing. I figured I had to come up with some kind of a gimmick to keep my name in front of her, so she wouldn’t forget me completely,” said Williams, now 84.

With ink and watercolors, Williams created a series of evocative scenes, about 40 of them, from his work on a transport ship off the coast of Cuba and around the Caribbean on the envelopes he used to mail letters to Carolyn in East Millinocket. The artwork indeed kept Williams’ name on his sweetheart’s mind. In fact, Williams became the talk of the Millinocket area.

“I remember getting the envelopes because the postmistress in town, when they came, would call me and say ‘Carolyn you got another envelope.’ It was a little town, everyone wanted to see the envelopes,” said Carolyn, 79. “I certainly felt special.”

Art flows through the 64-year romance of Rod and Carolyn Williams, coloring it and bringing it to life. The painted envelopes helped nurture a three-year courtship while Williams was in the Navy. His drawings of stylish cars, often with a sketch of Carolyn alongside, helped him land a job at Ford. That gave him the confidence to propose. The two were married in 1954, just days after Williams got out of the Navy.


Art was the foundation of the business they started together in 1960, when Williams began creating marketing campaigns for clients, often using Carolyn as a model. And as their family grew to include four children and 10 grandchildren, Williams’ colorful hand-painted cards marked the birthdays, anniversaries and holidays.

Carolyn’s 80th birthday is coming up in September and Williams said he “has some ideas” for what he might create.

Williams says he’s been lucky in his life, but most of his good luck has had something to do with his obvious artistic talent.


Growing up in Millinocket, Williams was always drawing, always doodling. He says he wasn’t a good student but that his art always made him stand out.

“That was my calling card with everybody, that I could draw. When I had to do a book report, I’d just illustrate it, and the teachers liked it,” said Williams, sitting in the couple’s Biddeford Pool home. “But I think they passed me just to get me out of school.”


Wanting to avoid a job in the Millinocket paper mills, Williams enrolled in art school in New York City. He was out of money after one semester. He decided to join the Navy, so he could later use money from the GI Bill of Rights to continue art school.

When he met Carolyn, a year into his Navy stint, he showed off his creativity right away. But it wasn’t his art he displayed, it was a creative fib he told just before he shipped out. He had only known Carolyn for three days.

“He told me a story that his birthday was coming up – which was a lie – and that other sailors had gotten cakes from girls and could I send him a birthday cake,” she said, with Williams chuckling in the background. “And I did, because I believed him.”

While in the Navy, he applied for drafting school. But he later found out the drafting school had been discontinued. Frustrated, he decided to send a letter and some drawings to Maine Sen. Margaret Chase Smith. Soon Williams got a new assignment, painting the portraits of Navy ships to hang in admirals’ offices.

Around the same time, Williams did car sketches on his own time, and they sometimes included Carolyn’s likeness.

An officer saw some of William’s sketches and sent them to Cars magazine. The magazine did a story on Williams titled “Dream Car Sailor.” The magazine spread got the attention of Detroit automakers and led to a job offer from Ford.


As a young man, Williams sometimes thought that he had no future because art wasn’t seen as a serious way to make a living in Millinocket. Getting a job in art gave him the confidence to propose to Carolyn. The two married and drove to Detroit, with $100 in their pockets.

“I was 18 but I wasn’t scared,” she said. “I don’t know why, but I wasn’t.”

In Detroit, Williams worked with other artists to design styling elements of cars. He’s got a framed painting of a late ’50s Ford station wagon design he worked on, where his responsibility was the two-tone treatment, the triangular section on the middle of the car’s side, where one color met another. He said he hated working on station wagons, especially when executives kept directing him to make the tail fins bigger and bigger.

After about six years in Detroit, the couple decided to start their own business based on Williams’ art. They moved to the Boston area and started Williams Associates. Williams would spend his days “knocking on doors” looking for businesses that needed a logo or art for marketing. His wife was home taking care of the children, and the rest of the business.

“I didn’t know anything about the business part of running a business,” he said. “She was home with four kids, then at night she’d type up my proposals and do the books.”

The business grew. Over the years, Williams designed the marketing art for ski wear makers and camping gear manufacturers, using his wife and his children as models in the photographs. He couldn’t afford to hire models, he said. Plus, he had gotten used to having Carolyn in his art. Even when he didn’t use her photograph or likeness, he’d often work in her initials, C.A.R., on a license plate or the side of a ship.


One of the company’s clients, starting in the early 1970s, was Tom’s of Maine, maker of natural products. The Williamses moved to Maine in 1999, to work full time for Tom’s, which he did until 2004. Since then he’s been “retired” but still does design work for several Maine companies, including Kate’s Homemade Butter.

Holding a Valentine’s Day card her husband made for her a few years ago, Carolyn said she has always marveled at his artistic ability. It was a sunny home scene, with sunflowers viewed through a window, checked curtains, a basket of fruit and other homey touches.

But looking back on 64 years of life, love and family, does Carolyn think it would have all happened without Williams’ artistic courtship strategy?

“Oh, I certainly think so,” she said.

“I don’t know,” said Williams, sitting nearby. “I didn’t have much of a personality.”

But he does have art.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.