On November 8, 2011, a great cartoonist and a greater man quietly slipped away. Every day over the past 51 years, Bil Keane’s comic strip The Family Circus made us laugh, smile, and feel good inside whether we read it in a newspaper or from the side of a refrigerator where many were displayed. His influence on society was duly noted when word of his passing was mentioned in televised reports on national news broadcasts, on countless websites, and in many tweets and Facebook comments. It was so nice to see this outpouring of affection from many strangers for a man I was privileged to count as a dear friend.
This past weekend, Bil’s life was celebrated. I made the trip to the Phoenix area to attend the funeral where many tears and many laughs were shared. The memories came flooding back. Like many of you, I grew up reading The Family Circus in the newspaper and always got that warm and fuzzy feeling. Later, as a professional, I began to understand the fine artistic qualities of the artwork. Then what had become a professional admiration for Bil Keane eventually grew to a personal appreciation.
When first entering the professional world of cartooning, Bil Keane was one of the first cartoonists to whom I wrote. That initial correspondence in 1994 was simply a young rookie writing a fan letter to one of his heroes. Bil sent a reply that included a wonderful pencil sketch of the entire cast of his strip that has remained on my wall ever since.
Two years later, in 1996, I attended my first Reuben Awards that the National Cartoonists Society (NCS) hosts each year. It was held at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York City. I was a young illustrator living and working in South Carolina who, for the first time, was being exposed to a room full of professional cartoonists. It was a memorable evening for many reasons – in a glance around the room one could see Charles Schulz, Garry Trudeau with wife Jane Pauley, Archie artist Dan DeCarlo, MAD Magazine‘s Mort Drucker and Sergio Aragonès, Al Hirschfeld and so on. Even the mayor, Rudolph Giuliani was there. Best of all, Bil Keane was the Master of Ceremonies.
Based on the content of his comic strip, one’s impression of Bil Keane would be that he was a quiet, gentle, mild-mannered man. When he stepped up to the microphone that evening, all bets were off. Bil had a wicked sense of humor that had the whole room in stitches with great one-liners and his deft use of double-talk. We were there to celebrate the best of the cartooning business, but in between acceptance speeches, nobody was safe from Bil’s sharp and hilarious tongue. The one comment he made that night that I remember to this day was when he was introducing one of our larger colleagues. Bil said, “And now, here’s a cartoonist whose shadow weighs more than he does….” This was a room of longtime friends truly full of personal and professional admiration.
It turns out that along with that sharp wit, Bil also really was the gentle, mild-mannered man one might expect. When you met him, he’d have an impish grin, a twinkle in his eye, and a handshake so firm that you’d have to learn to draw with your left hand. Over the years I just came to appreciate him more and more, now and then chatting on the phone, and visiting with him in Arizona when in town to see relatives.
In 2008 I was involved with a committee planning a banquet in Bil’s honor for the Comic Art Professional Society (CAPS). CAPS had created an award called The Sergio named after CAPS co-founder Sergio Aragonès who also designed the trophy. The Sergio is given once each year to a cartoonist in appreciation for their lifetime of work in our profession. Bil’s beloved wife Thel had passed away earlier that year, and we decided it was time to give some very deserving love to Bil. Gary Owens (Rowen & Martin’s Laugh-In) emceed, and guest speakers included Greg Evans (Luann comic strip), Mell Lazarus (Momma comic strip), Cathy Guisewite (Cathy comic strip), son Jeff Keane (who had now taken over all duties on Family Circus and continues to do so today), and son Glen Keane (Disney animator). When Bil came to the mic to accept his award, true to form, he had us all holding our aching sides with his speech.
Just about one year ago was the last time I saw Bil. I was in town with my folks for my father’s 50th high school reunion, and one afternoon my mother and I paid Bil a visit. He had taken a fall a few months earlier that had weakened him and required some special rehabilitation measures. Despite the discomfort he was experiencing, he greeted us with that familiar twinkle in his eye, the impish grin, and a handshake so firm that I can still feel it. We talked about how his faithful dog had saved his life the day of his fall. He recalled days when the famous and not so famous came by the house, and of vacationing with Ozzie and Harriet who owned a vacation home next to Bil’s vacation home back in the day. We talked about life, and of cartooning, and about his family of whom he was so very proud. That was a very special afternoon.
So, while the news stories heralded the passing of this great cartoonist two weeks ago, there was so much more to the man that I wish everyone could have known. Perhaps Bil’s ever cheerful outlook on life came from something he once wrote in The Family Circus, “Yesterday’s the past, tomorrow’s the future, but today is a GIFT. That’s why it’s called the present.” I’m truly grateful for the many gift-wrapped “todays” with Bil.