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Tribute to a dad known too briefly

Eileen Slifer, only 16 when her father died, was inspired by his memory to do a children's book

Posted Monday, January 22, 2007
Artist Eileen Slifer used her Uncle Bill Slifer as the subject for her book, "The Model Maker." Both her father and uncle were World War II veterans. (Buy photo) The News Journal/ROBERT CRAIG

Her father has been dead for more than a quarter century, but Eileen Slifer's latest artwork is an homage to him and his service during World War II. 

Or, as Slifer pronounced it as a little girl, "War-war two."

Slifer's illustrated children's book, "The Model Maker: A World War II Veteran's Story" (Lettersource Books, $18.99) actually focuses on her uncle, Bill Slifer, her father's younger brother, who also fought in the war. Slifer, 43, and her assistant, Brett S. Weber, produced it.

Filled with her engaging watercolors, the book follows Bill, now 85, as he demonstrates his skills in building model airplanes with clothespins and popsicle sticks. But he also tells the story of his role in the Battle of the Bulge.

In simple language, he also shows how he makes these models despite creeping arthritis in his hands.

As Bill says at one point: "Building these models is not always easy. But if it weren't for what some of these planes did, I may not be here at all."

Eileen's father would not have survived either.

"My father spent a lot of time in his workshop, and I spent a lot of time talking to him, like he was a grandfather," Eileen says.

Her dad was like a grandfather because Rodney Slifer was 50 when Eileen was born. He died when Eileen was 16.

"When my uncle started working on these planes five or six years ago, it reminded me of my father," who methodically restored hunting rifles in his workshop.

Already an artist with her own business in Newark -- she does custom framing, draws live caricatures at parties and paints watercolors -- Slifer wanted to work on a longer project filled with complex portraits within a children's book.

The 15 paintings she did for the book are large enough -- 22 inches by 28 inches -- to allow much detail, including one extraordinary painting that shows Bill's entire workshop.

Four of the paintings are part of an exhibit of her work and Weber's at Agilent Technologies, in Wilmington. The exhibit will run through mid-March.

Bill Slifer said his niece pressed him for several years about the book. "I finally gave in and let her do it," he said from his home in Boonsboro, Md. "It wasn't my style to do that. I'm not a big hero, but then I'm very close to my niece since her dad died."

So close that he, in place of Eileen's father, gave her away in marriage.

Bill began building models of the airplanes about five years ago, he said.

"When I was a kid, I used to get my mom's box of clothespins, clip two of them together and say I had an airplane," he said. "So now, I came up with the idea of making these airplanes with my wife's clothespins. I've done 10 or 12 different models."

Rather than sell the planes, he gives them as gifts.

After Eileen got Bill to agree to do the book, she interviewed him at length. The interview became the skeleton for the book.

But Eileen decided she wasn't the one to write it. "I thought I was too close to it," she said.

She enlisted Weber, a photographer who works part-time at Eileen's studio framing pictures and preparing her canvases, to do that.

"Eileen had the basic storyline together," said Weber.

Weber simplified the language for the audience -- children 9 through 12 -- and included a glossary.

The book includes several illustrated pages of the model planes and their histories. Those featured include the Spirit of Saint Louis, Piper Cub J3, PT-17 Stearman, B-17 Flying Fortress, Brewster, B-29 Superfortress and the P-38 Lightning.

These were the planes that Bill Slifer credits with saving his life during one of the penultimate battles of the war, the Battle of the Bulge. "With the support of the planes, the battle reached a turning point," Bill says in the book. "We were able to halt the Nazis' advancement across our line of troops and begin driving them back."

Slifer, who said the book took her nearly a year, is planning another war story for children, this one about a bracelet with "Cecile" engraved on it that her father found.

"I want to tell a story about who that bracelet may have belonged to when my father found it," as he trudged his way through Europe as a soldier, she said.

Copies of "The Model Maker" may be purchased by going to www.lettersourcebooks.com. It also is available on Amazon.com.

Contact Victor Greto at 324-2832 or vgreto@delawareonline.com.