PEQUOT LAKES, Minn. — Just a month after penning his last "Claude and Ernie" comic strip for the Echo Journal in Pequot Lakes, Minn., Dan Gola died at age 76. He had been battling health issues for years.

“He loved doing that. He loved y’all,” his wife, Barbara Gola, said of the "Claude and Ernie" strip that Gola created for nearly 30 years for the newspaper. “That was a big part of his life.”

Gola died Jan. 25, at a Lumberton, N.C., hospital, his wife said.

Claude & Ernie cartoon by Dan Gola
Claude & Ernie cartoon by Dan Gola

"My apologies to Claude Schmidt and the family of Ernie Musolf go along with my thanks for the inspiration for 28 years of fun with the cartoon," Dan Gola said in early December, in an email to the newspaper announcing his retirement.

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Gola grew up in Pequot Lakes, moving with his parents at age 3 from the Twin Cities to Ideal Corners, Minn., where the family bought Pine Terrace Resort and later the Ideal Store, gas station and bar.

In 1990, he started working with the Lake Country Echo, and he met the two men he based his cartoon on: Schmidt and Musolf.

"Both of them were World War II vets and worked together for the railroad in Brainerd. Both retired from the railroad," Gola said in a 2016 interview. "They hung out at the Legion club. Ernie lived right across the street. Those two guys cracked up the house every night. Arguing, talking about game wardens and how to get away from them."

That’s how Gola started the Claude and Ernie cartoon that appeared weekly in the local newspaper.

“When Dan approached us about 'Claude and Ernie', I wasn’t sure how it would play out,” former editor Louis Hoglund said in an email. “But it turned out to be a fun connection between the Echo and the readers for a long run.”

Hoglund said the cartoon strip had a certain “Lake Wobegon” charm.

“In retrospect, I think Dan’s comic helped preserve a link between the ‘old-timers’ and the newspaper,” he said, noting "Claude and Ernie" seemed to continue a link between traditional small town and small town newspaper as the complexion and demographic of the area changed and grew.

“The bonus was that the simple humor often resonated with all readers — whether you were a true ‘local’ or a transplant,” Hoglund said.

Even after moving to North Carolina with Barbara in 2004, Gola continued his cartoon until December.

He gave a “bob of the bobber” to friends who contributed their ideas to the cartoon, and gave each a framed copy of the cartoon with the Echo Journal logo as thanks for their help.

Friend Jim Nickel shared the following about Gola:

“Dan was a member of the Pequot Lakes Class of ’62. Dan was always very approachable and a friend to so many. We called each other 'bro’s' over the years as first initiated by our teacher, Mrs Bland.

“Dan was usually a step or two ahead of most class members with his wit and energy. I will miss our weekly correspondence over these past many years of later life. Yes, Bro Dan is in my ‘Life-Book.’”

Hoglund said: “Dan was one of those local characters and had a wry sense of humor about small town life.”