WWII veteran enjoys life of art

MARQUETTE – Joe Drobny was born in Dr. Robbins Hospital in Negaunee on June 18, 1926.

“That was on Main Street in Negaunee. The building is still there. I think it’s someone’s house,” Drobny, now 86, said.

Not long ago, Drobny found out from Rosemary Michelin of the Marquette Regional History Center something that floored him.

“After receiving some donated documents, Rosemary saw my name on a list of people who had been born at that hospital,” he said. “She made me a copy and also on the list was Nita Engle. She was my buddy when I was a kid. We were our own two-person art club but I never knew she was born in the same hospital as me.”

Drobny and Engle spent a lot of time together as children.

“We’d draw together. We liked to draw horses’ heads,” he said, adding with a wry grin: “She went on to become a famous artist. I didn’t.

“The strawheads were what they called us,” Drobny said. “We were in the sun all the time. I do remember one time there was what we called the ‘Tarzan tree’ in our neighborhood that all the kids would climb. I talked Nita up into the tree and she fell out and broke her arm.

“Every time I’d see her after that, she’d remind me I was the one who broke her arm.”

Art was a major interest for 1944 Marquette High School graduate Drobny, including during his days as a member of the U.S. Navy during World War II.

“I used to sketch portraits of the guys,” Drobny said. “Many years later, Lyle Ogea from Republic showed me (a portrait) he had brought home from the war. I had forgotten I did it.”

During the war, Drobny was hospitalized in Florida due to an asthma attack.

“For fun, I did a lot of sketches while I was there,” he said. “I’d talk to the guys while I sketched them. One time, a sailor asked me to do a sketch of him. It was lights out at 9, so we went into the bathroom where there were still lights so I could finish it up.

“The weekend came and we were both still there in the hospital, he and I, and he asked me why I wasn’t going in to town. I told him I didn’t have any money. He said ‘I’ll lend you $2.’ Now you have to know back then, a big glass of beer was 10 cents, so you could have a whole weekend for $2.

“He was gone when I got back after the weekend. He knew he was going to be discharged and he wanted me to have the $2.”

After the war, Drobny pursued his interest in art, attending the University of Iowa on the G.I. Bill.

“A professor at Iowa suggested I try the Institute of Design in Chicago. They did more avant garde art there,” he said. “The professor said they had more innovative ideas there and since I wanted to get into commercial art, that would be a good place.”

Drobny graduated from that art school, then took a job in commercial art in the Windy City.

“But I couldn’t take city life. It wasn’t for me,” he said. “I would come home to Marquette to visit. I would see the lights of Marquette and my heart would jump in my chest.

“I decided not to go back to Chicago.”

Drobny took a job painting on the famous Munising Woodenware products, which are now highly sought after collectibles. The company had factories in both Munising and Marquette.

“Anyone who still has some with a little ‘D’ on it, that might be mine,” he said with a smile.

When that business closed down, Drobny went to work for Guelff Printing.

“My work is still hanging around,” he said. “I did a seal for the city (of Marquette) and did a logo for the Washington Shoe Store.”

But Drobny wanted a union job to provide for his family, so he took a position with the Marquette Board of Light and Power.

“I did just everything in my time there. It was a good job with benefits and a pension,” he said.

Drobny and his wife, Elaine, have three children. Their son Jim and daughter Robin both live in the Marquette area, while daughter Jill lives in California. They have three grandchildren as well.

Renee Prusi can be contacted at 906-228-2500, ext. 253.