Cowboy artist dies after ’great ride’

Larry Zabel -- long gone from IWV -- remembered for continued friendship, generosity, love of Navy

Cowboy artist dies after ’great ride’When renowned cowboy artist Larry V. Zabel, 82, lost his valiant battle with chronic myeloid leukemia on Sept. 11, 2012, he left many friends in the Indian Wells Valley with fond memories in their hearts and wonderful paintings on their walls.

“As Larry would proclaim to everyone, it has been a truly great ride!” said a family member.

“The nation just lost a great American, the Navy lost one of its greatest supporters, China Lake lost an icon and we all lost a good friend,” said longtime Ridgecrest friend Jack Connell.

Larry died at his home up North Meadow Creek near McAllister, Mt. His memorial service will be held at Journey Church, Bozeman, Friday Oct. 26, at 1 p.m.

Larry was born on Jan. 19, 1930, at Deer Creek, Minn., to Esther (Peterson) and X. Y. Zabel. His early years were spent happily on a farm near Deer Creek where he and his sister Beverly attended a one-room country school.

An accomplished artist, herself, Esther encouraged her obviously gifted son to draw and paint from the age of three years.

In 1938 the family moved to California, where Larry attended schools, graduating from Anaheim Union High School in 1947. (He was inducted into the school’s Hall of Fame for distinguished graduates in 2010.)

Larry joined the U.S. Navy, where he served for more than three years, first aboard USS Bon Homme Richard and USS Valley Forge then on the island of Guam. “While I was at Guam for a year, I had a lot of free time, so I began painting,” he told the Rocketeer in 1972.

That experience encouraged Larry to pursue a career in art, and after his discharge he attended the University of California Santa Barbara, the University of the Americas in Mexico City and California State University, from which he graduated with an art major.

He went to work for Douglas Aircraft Co. in Tulsa, Okla., leaving after six years to become the art director for Gordon Genge, Inc., in Ridgecrest. In 1966 Larry joined the work force at Cchina Lake as a branch head in the Technical Services Division of the Weapons Development Department.

During those years he continued to build his reputation as a painter, and in 1967 he was invited to join the Navy’s combat art program by Chief of Naval Information Rear Adm. Henry Miller. He accepted and soon took a trip to Vietnam, where he flew on 19 different aircraft, all the while sketching naval action on the spot.

He made another trip to Vietnam in 1969. Those two trips resulted in 16 paintings from Larry’s talented brush — the most the program received from any artist.

The paintings are part of the permanent collection of the Naval History and Heritage Command in Washington D.C.

Later in his career Larry became a manager in the Technical Information Department, and pursued a flourishing leisure-time career creating paintings for local buyers, many of them work groups seeking special gifts to give to China Lakers upon their retirement. Many a Ridgecrest living room features a Zabel work as its proudest adornment.

Larry and his wife Sharon lived on an idyllic ranch in Walker Pass, where they gave frequent parties featuring “raft races” across their pond. Adding to the variety of creatures at the ranch was “Chris,” Al Christman’s famous burro, which Larry generously adopted when Christman moved away from Ridgecrest.

After completing 20 years of government service, Larry decided to retire and pursue a career as a cowboy artist. He and Sharon moved to Montana where they purchased property on North Meadow Creek about 25 years ago. Eventually some of their family and friends followed them there, including his lifelong friends, Bob and Dixie Gates.

Larry soon made a name for himself in Montana, where he painted the state’s scenery, its ranchers and ranches, native peoples and the wildlife. His paintings hang in many public and private collections all the way from government offices in Washington to the West Coast.

He was extremely generous with his acknowledged God-given talent and contributed to countless worthy causes and fundraising efforts, notably those of the China Lake Museum Foundation.

“It is hard to imagine how a guy who lived in the Mojave Desert, then Montana, could be such an ardent supporter of the Navy,” said Connell.

More friends spoke of Zabel’s significant contributions to China Lake history with his paintings.

“For the China Lake 50th anniversary in 1993, Larry completed four art works which currently hang in key offices around the base and are the property of the China Lake Museum Foundation,” said Bob Campbell. The paintings, which encompassed various aspects of the Navy’s work at China Lake, were duplicated on tiles. Hundreds of local residents purchased the tiles as special souvenirs of that special event.

In 2002 for the Sidewinder missile’s 50th-anniversary celebration, Larry painted “Sidewinder over Wild Horse Mesa,” featured in the photo accompanying this article. Campbell said CLMF still has a few copies, some of them signed by the artist himself, available for sale.

“Larry was a personal friend who loved to tell the story through his painting — we will miss him, his stories, his friendship and his love for life,” Campell added.

One of Larry’s last paintings, “Naval Aviation Centennial – 2011,” was completed only a few weeks before his passing, and he directed that the painting be donated to the Naval Air Warfare Center China Lake.

“I was fortunate enough to spend four days with Larry two weeks ago. He was obviously declining, but we all had a great time, and he was doing well enough to catch four trout and have a couple of his trademark vodka tonics. He enjoyed the good life right up to the end,” said Connell.

“I was fortunate enough to know Larry for over 35 years,” he added. “His house was always open to his friends, and he had uncountable friends. No one met and knew Larry for very long without becoming a friend. I most remember him as someone always ready for a hunting or fishing trip, and he was the ‘life of the camp’ with his innumerable stories.

“He will be greatly missed, but I am fortunate to have a lifetime of memories of Larry.”

Larry leaves daughter Becca Zabel of Bozeman and her four sons, Neal Preston (Amiee) and children Bradlee, Kaeden and Quincie, and Cody Preston (Jenna) and children Ethan and Quinton, all of Kernville; Lane Graham of Montana State University Bozeman; and Logan Graham (Alex) of Alpine, Calif.

More survivors are son Steve Zabel (Maria) and their son Jack of Bozeman; son Jon Zabel of Las Vegas and son-in-law Todd Fisher with children Vanessa, James, and Brandon Rivers of Creston, Calif. Larry is also survived by his sister, Beverly Z. Claassen, her daughters Karen Claassen and Kathy Carpenter of Ennis and Kathy’s sons Ken and Josh of Norman, Okla.; and his companion Maureen van Emmerik of Georgetown, Washington, D. C., as well as scores of very dear friends.

He was preceded in death by his ex-wife Marie Nichols Zabel Hanning, his dear wife Sharon J. Zabel and beloved daughter Christi Rivers Fisher.

In recent years Larry and Maureen have enjoyed a life split between Montana, Washington, D.C., and Morro Bay, Calif. They enjoyed marvelous trips to Kenya, Tanzania, and recently South Africa.

In lieu of flowers, the family suggests that contributions be made to the Madison Valley Medical Center Foundation. The family is grateful for the support and care provided by the staffs of Deaconess Hospital in Bozeman, the Madison Valley Medical Center, hospice lovingly provided by Mary Carlson, and especially the amazing personal care by Dr. Robert Marks.

Cremation has taken place at K & L Mortuaries in Bozeman.

Story First Published: 2012-09-19