Last summer, I was shocked to read the news that Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Doug Marlette was killed in a one-car accident in which he was a passenger near Oxford, Mississippi. I had worked with Doug at the Charlotte Observer in the 1980s and later visited with him when I was interviewing for a position I later took at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
In today’s world of instant Internet news delivery, I quickly navigated to the Observer website and read a touching tribute to Doug posted by his longtime friend and one-time boss, Ed Williams, who manages the editorial page. Doug’s creative personality was both endearing and, at times, challengingly provocative, and Ed summed it up well and quickly. Reading about Doug’s life brought back a flood of memories of my own and I wrote Ed and traveled to Charlotte on August 8 for a memorial service. Ed’s latest column on Doug published just two days ago.
I first met Doug in the first few weeks of what turned out to be a very stressful job. You’d think being the manager of 28 creative writers and designers and event-planning employees would be a fun job and, at times, it was. But it was also difficult to please my clients, who were the paper’s editor, circulation manager and advertising director. They each fought for control of my department and our resources. I felt a kinship with Teddy Kollek, then the mayor of Jerusalem who was featured on 60 Minutes as a peacemaker in a city claimed for and whose control was aggressively sought by three major religions: Christians, Jews and Muslims. Teddy did a much better job managing Jerusalem than I did with the Observer promotion department, but I was only 29 when I took the job and I was soon locked in a battle with seasoned veterans.
After one of my early squabbles with all three “religions” at the paper, I wandered back to my office and found Doug Marlette sitting in a chair, a pile of books in his hand. He quickly straightened me out. My main job at the Observer, I soon learned, was to promote Doug! Soon my department was designing and publishing promotional ads in our paper that highlighted Doug’s talents and offered his books for sale. A few weeks later in January 1986, when the Challenger exploded, Doug drove back to the office and penned a cartoon that published the next day.
The morning it ran, our phone started ringing. Readers wanted to order copies of the cartoon. We ran an ad the next day offering them to readers for the cost of postage. We were flooded with their responses. People who might have canceled their subscriptions because of their ire over one of Doug’s previous controversial cartoons were now seeking five or 10 copies for their friends and families. My secretary tried to keep up, to no avail. Soon carts of mail were being hauled into our offices and all of our employees were having to fill the orders. Doug was very happy. In all, we fulfilled 70,000 orders for reprints.
Later, when my parents were celebrating their 50th anniversary, I produced a special commemorative newspaper and asked Doug for a cartoon. He adapted one for the occasion, with Popeye and Olive Oil in a marriage counselor’s office, with Popeye saying, “I suppose I am who I am and you am who you am too!” It was a big hit with my family.
Eventually Doug left the Observer for bigger markets, including Atlanta and New York. When I visited him in his office at the AJC shortly after he joined that staff, he was already restless and, he felt, under-appreciated. He was extremely talented, as soon proven by the Pulitzer Prize he won for his work at both the Observer and the AJC. Later, he wrote novels and this past summer, when he was in Mississippi, he was working with a high school drama class that was going to perform a musical in Edinburgh Fringe Festival based on his popular comic strip, Kudzu.
The evening of his memorial, several hundred Doug-lovers gathered at a church in Charlotte and told the old stories, read passages from his work and showed a slide show of his more controversial cartoons. We were all saddened to know his voice had been stilled, but all were richer for having known this creative genius of a man.
Photos: Doug Marlette and the Challenger cartoon that was reprinted 70,000 times in 1986 and again today, on websites all over cyberspace.