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Jon Van Zyle: A picture-perfect race supporter

Artist Jon Van Zyle has a love affair with the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race that goes back decades.

Before he ran his first Iditarod in 1976, he volunteered his help.

After he ran the race, he started painting the trail and producing prints that would prove a money-raising lifeline for The Last Great Race in its formative years.

Because of poor Iditarod record-keeping, no one knows the exact contribution Van Zyle has made to the race since 1973, but the belief is that it numbers in the hundreds of thousands of dollars -- at a minimum.

And the amazing thing is that the Iditarod never had to ask for a penny.

Van Zyle first suggested the idea of creating commemorative posters to raise money for the race in the mid-'70s.

The Iditarod board of directors endorsed the idea but then said there was no cash for printing.

So Van Zyle borrowed money to get the posters made, oversaw the printing and then donated the posters, along with the original art, to the race.

Former Iditarod champ and board member Dick Mackey had credited this artwork, and all that was to follow, with bringing the race not only much needed funding but attention as well.

"He wasn't nearly as famous then as he is now," Mackey wrote in his memoirs, "but his Iditarod work became popular and raised a lot of money for the race."

And it wasn't donated solely in the form of posters.

Over the years, if there was a way for the Iditarod to make a buck off art of any kind, Van Zyle often had a hand in the promotion or creation.

Today he has a marketing arrangement with the Iditarod Trail Committee, but in the early days he just gave away everything.

Van Zyle, who ran his second and last race in 1979, looks back on the early years of the race as a joyous time. He liked the dogs, the race and painting.

As a youngster, Van Zyle figured to become a veterinarian or an artist when he grew up. He didn't know that he'd end up as something of both -- a dog-mushing artist whose most notable work ended up featuring Alaska's Last Great Race.

Inducted 2004 Greatest accomplishment Generating support and cash for the race through his artwork. Vital stats Born: Michigan Hometown: Eagle River Age: 67 Positions held Iditarod official artist, 1979-present. Other contributions Two-time Iditarod musher.