The man who spent much of the ’80s and early ’90s describing the “happy little clouds” as he painted them previously spent two decades making sure other men were prepared and healthy enough to fly through the clouds. Before he became famous for using his time slot on PBS to teach others The Joy of Painting, Bob Ross served with the rank of master sergeant for 20 years in the United States Air Force.
In 1961, at the age of 18, Ross enlisted in the United States Air Force in Alaska and started out as a medical records technician. Because the rank that Ross eventually held required him to be, in his words, “mean” and “tough” on those with a lower rank by making sure beds were made and latrines were scrubbed, he vowed to himself to never again be anything but nice to others after his service in the Air Force came to an end.
So, in 1981, with a friendly and pleasant demeanor, he started teaching others to paint as he let his hair and beard become the ultra-frizzy mop that made him so widely recognizable.
While serving in Alaska at Eielson Air Force Base, Ross began to gain a deep sense of appreciation for the beautiful scenery that surrounded him. Although he had flirted with the hobby of painting as a child, he honed his skill during brief breaks from his work at the base while peering out at the snowy mountains and those “happy little clouds” above.
The brevity of his breaks helped him to develop his quick style of painting that was later required by the 30-minute slot that he had to complete a piece of artwork during his shows.
After years of filling American households with his soothing voice and familiar appearance, he grew tired of maintaining his abundance of hair. But he did not want to alter his brand that so many people tuned in to see every weekday afternoon.
So, he kept the hair-do and never stopped smiling. When he became sick and had to undergo chemotherapy, he lost his hair. But many viewers never knew about it. Because he did not want his appearance to change for the sake of his viewers, he wore a near-perfect replica of his hairstyle in the form of a wig.
Ross suffered from lymphoma during the final years of his show. By the time the series ended in 1994, his viewers were able to notice his weakened appearance. He died within a year after the final episode aired, and the symbolic connection between the date of his death and his years of service to his country in the Air Force is tough to ignore. Ross passed away in New Smyrna Beach, FL, on July 4, 1995.