Peanuts by Charles Schultz is at or near the top of any list for the most successful comic strips of all time. Snoopy is recognized throughout the world, as are Lucy, Linus, Schroeder and the main character Charlie Brown.
Other characters appeared irregularly, fading in and out as the decades passed. Early in the series Linus didn’t exist and Lucy was the baby of the group; the main characters were Charlie Brown, Shermy, Patty and Violet. By the time the first television special debuted, characters such as Pigpen, Lila, 5 and his sisters 3 and 4 were regulars in the strip. The numbered characters didn’t last through the mid-1970s and lacked speaking roles even in the first special but they were given memorable, front-stage performances during the dance sequence. More characters would follow, from regulars like Franklin and Rerun to incidental cast members like Maynard and Loretta.
One character who never appeared was the Little Red-Haired Girl. The object of unrequited love, Charlie Brown fell for her in 1961 and spend much of the decade dithering on whether to tell her about his affection, only to have her family suddenly move in 1969. In the late 1970s, she is revealed to have returned… and Charlie still couldn’t find the courage to tell her how he felt. She would continue to be irregularly mentioned throughout the run but was seen only in one strip, and then only in silhouette. Different iterations of her appeared in animation specials, over which Schultz had little control, but never in the strip.
There was a reason. The little red-haired girl had an analogue in real life; her name was Donna Mae Wold, and she was the woman who turned down Charles Schultz’ marriage proposal.
It was the late 1940s. Donna Johnson was working at the Art Instruction Schools in Minneapolis when she met Schultz. The pair started dating, and after many months Schultz finally mustered enough courage to propose… only to be politely but firmly rejected.
Shortly afterward, Johnson was called by Allan Wold, who had seen her in the church choir. Discovering her last name, he called all of the Johnsons in the Minneapolis phone book until he managed to contact her. She agreed to a date, one led to another, and in 1950 they married.
The Wolds had four children… and more. Happily married and fairly prosperous, they decided to foster children at their home. As befits someone who was unofficially part of the huge Peanuts gang, Donna Wold fostered more than forty children during her lifetime, ensuring a constant stream of faces to match those of the the strip of her rejected suitor.
And if there was any doubt as to the influence of the comic strip in her life, one need only ask some of the children who were unidentified and abandoned when they were taken in… such as Lucy Wold, or Schroeder Wold.
Question of the night: Who is a red-haired person you’d like to meet?