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Ralph Kent, 68; artist protected integrity of Mickey Mouse

LOS ANGELES - In the world of Disney, artist Ralph Kent was known by some as "The Keeper of the Mouse."

The artist was one of Mickey Mouse's handlers, concerned with maintaining the wholesome image of Walt Disney's most famous creation. Mr. Kent trained other artists to draw the mouse uniformly, and he helped determine which merchandise would carry his image.

During a nearly four-decade career, Mr. Kent became a specialist on the finer points of Disney's world, the look of the characters, their personalities, and their interactions.

He was protective of their images. "He wouldn't let out certain merchandise, things Mickey shouldn't be on," said his wife, Linda. ". . . Mickey was the standard-bearer of Disney, Mickey was the one that made Disney. He had to be kind of kept that way."

Mr. Kent, who helped keep Mickey on the straight and narrow, died Monday at his home in Kissimmee, Fla., from complications of esophageal cancer. He was 68.

In addition to his work with Disney, Mr. Kent designed Billy Buffalo, the mascot for the Buffalo Bills football team, and Billy the Marlin, the mascot for the Florida Marlins baseball team, said Linda Kent.

In 2004, the year he retired from Disney, Mr. Kent was named a Disney Legend and was honored with a window on Main Street at Walt Disney World. By then he was a corporate trainer at Disney Design Group.

"He said he fell under the spell of Disney when he saw 'Pinocchio,' " Marty Sklar, Disney executive vice president, said in a statement. "It was fitting that Ralph capped his Disney years as a trainer, mentoring new artists and creating a reference collection of character model sheets."

As a boy, Mr. Kent asked Walt Disney for a job. After Disney wrote a letter saying there were no jobs for 8-year-olds and advising him to keep studying and drawing, Mr. Kent did just that.

Born Ralph Kwiatkowski in Buffalo, the artist changed his surname to Kent because, he said, nobody could pronounce his birth name. He graduated from the Albright Art School in Buffalo in 1960, and then spent two years in the US Army, illustrating military training aids and films.

After his discharge, Mr. Kent headed west, found work as a marketing production artist at Disneyland in 1963, and found a mentor in the man to whom he had written as a child. Mr. Kent designed training material for four Disney exhibits at the 1964-65 World's Fair in New York. Over the years, he created marketing materials for Disneyland attractions such as the Jungle Cruise and Enchanted Tiki Room. He designed a souvenir book for Pirates of the Caribbean and merchandise such as a Christmas ornament depicting Mr. Toad's Wild Ride.

Mr. Kent also designed what remains a memorable Disney collectible: a limited-edition adult Mickey Mouse watch. Walt Disney gave the watch to his top executives in 1965.

In 1971, Mr. Kent relocated to Florida, where he designed souvenirs and merchandise, such as license plates and bumper stickers for Walt Disney World, and later became director of Walt Disney Imagineering East.

Mr. Kent also was the man behind Mickey's signature. For a while he was one of a few authorized to sign the mouse's signature. After leaving Disney in 1985, Mr. Kent returned in 1990 and became a trainer of artists.

Mickey's personality, like his physical depiction, evolved over the years. In his earlier life, Mickey was hardly a Boy Scout. He was a mischief-maker, brash and alarming to some parents.

Over the years, he became the always-good Mickey that millions loved.

In addition to his wife, Mr. Kent leaves two daughters, Julie Lowery of Winter Garden, Fla., and Laura Hilgenfeldt of Ocala, Fla.; three stepsons; Scott Dobek of Haines City, Fla., Michael Dobek of Orlando, Fla., and David Gonos of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; a sister, Joan Grabowski of Clarence, N.Y.; and a brother, Larry Kwiatkowski of West Seneca, N.Y.

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