LAST SUMMER, day after day, I called the Little Red-Haired Girl. And night after night, I wondered whether I would ever actually get to talk with her.
The Little Red-Haired Girl — actually, the real woman who inspired the iconic “Peanuts” character — was Donna Johnson Wold. And she proved as elusive as Charlie Brown’s dream crush.
Then, last July, I finally spoke with Ms. Wold, who was warm, humble and utterly endearing, as well as reassuring that she had built a fulfilling and rewarding life. More than six decades ago, she had chosen her longtime firefighter husband over Charles M. Schulz. Schulz, the world-famous “Peanuts” creator, then turned that heartache into art with the scarlet-haired character, who was featured anew in last November’s “The Peanuts Movie.”
“Oh, we dated for about two years,” Ms. Wold told me of her relationship with “Sparky” Schulz after they met at a Minneapolis instructional art school; both he and Allan Wold proposed marriage. “I loved him. I guess I chose Al because I knew all Al’s friends, who became my friends. I didn’t really know Sparky’s friends.”
“But it was a long time ago,” added Wold, speaking by phone from the Minneapolis area, where she had lived her full life, traveling and camping and adventuring (she loved the Grand Tetons) and becoming a mother to four and a foster mother to scores more.
Allan and Donna Wold married in 1950, the same year that “Peanuts” debuted.
Schulz would introduce his mysterious, Donna-inspired character to “Peanuts” readers on Nov. 12, 1963, as Charlie Brown said dreamily: “I’d sure like to eat lunch with that little red-haired girl.”
“She’s the object of his affection,” Jean Schulz, Sparky’s widow, told me last year. “We can’t [really] know her. … There’s this mystique and this fantasy.” And in last year’s CG-animated movie, she said, the filmmakers made “that experience ephemeral.”
“She is kind of the catalyst for this film … ,” “Peanuts Movie” director Steve Martino told me prior to the film’s release, in which red-haired child actress Francesca Capaldi voiced the character. “We’re still inspired by that beautiful silhouette that Sparky drew.”
Ms. Wold lived in the shadow of that silhouette for more than a quarter-century, acknowledging her role as inspiration in 1989 upon the release of the Schulz biography “Good Grief.” “It got her out in the spotlight just a little, not too much,” Allan Wold told the Star Tribune in Minneapolis.
She reportedly kept a hope chest of Sparky’s doodles, and named some of her foster children after some of the “Peanuts” characters.
Donna Mae Johnson Wold died Aug. 9 of heart failure and complications from diabetes, the Star Tribune reported over the weekend. She was 87.
She is survived by her husband; her daughters Sally Wold, Peggy Baumtrog and Susan Trulen; a sister, Margaret Olson; seven grandchildren; and 13 great-grandchildren.
“I’ve had a good life,” Ms. Wold told me last summer. “A very happy life.”