Monday, February 9, 2009

Hey. Tooting your own horn is what blogs are all about, ain't it?

Well, it sure is around here.

In case you missed it, here's the Wichita Magazine profile of yours truly that came out last month.

The Firebrand
For two decades at The Wichita Eagle, Richard Crowson was the editorial cartoonist everyone loved to hate. But when he was fired in September, the outpouring of support made him rethink his legacy.

On a Saturday afternoon in mid-October, Richard Crowson, the former cartoonist for The Wichita Eagle, strums a guitar in the cafĂ© at Watermark Books alongside wife Karen. The song is “I Know My Baby Loves Me,” a barnburner by Ernest Tubb about the strange and misconstrued evidences of love. For the last verse, Crowson, who sings with a stolid backcountry lilt redolent of his Memphis roots, improvises: “Well, I used to work at the Eagle, then they put me out on the street, but I know my paper loves me. Yes I know my paper loves me in their own peculiar way.” Afterwards, the crowd of 30 or 40 that has gathered to hear the family band applauds, whistles. “I’m over it,” Crowson says breezily, swapping his guitar for a banjo, grinning. “I swear I am.”

For 21 years, Crowson, who was laid off in September, filled the Eagle’s opinion page with irreverent, ruthlessly local, socially charged cartoons engaged with the plight of the working poor, corporal punishment, the teaching of science in schools, environmental protection, women’s rights, the inferiority complex of Kansans, and legislative quackery.

He was the first of his kind at the Eagle—he talked an editor into creating the position in 1987—and he will likely be the last. The Eagle is the latest in a string of more than 50 dailies, from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel to The Chicago Tribune, to replace salaried artists with cheaper, nationally syndicated cartoons.

Crowson’s satirical renderings of Kansas politicos, from district attorney Nola Foulston as a stoical Egyptian sphinx to senator Bob Dole as a black-eyed, bruise-kneed Dennis the Menace, won him a loyal audience who never hesitated to express their outrage in letters and e-mails. In one note, a reader wrote, “Your mother should have aborted you.”

Crowson told me, “It took me years to get used to that kind of criticism. Then, after a while, it becomes a badge of honor to an editorial cartoonist because you figure you’re not really doing your job if you’re not hacking people off and getting them cussing. You’re supposed to be putting your opinion out there clearly.” Which is why the hundreds of positive e-mails that Crowson received in the days after September 28th, when his final cartoon ran in the Eagle, confounded the 56-year-old. “You can get cynical in this business easily and most of us are, and I still am to some extent, about human nature,” Crowson said. “Then something meaningful like that happens.”

In disposition, Crowson is an unlikely firebrand. At his brick house in Rockwood a few months ago, as orange hemlock leaves swirled around a blue “Obama 2008” sign in the front yard, the artist was inconsolable. For days, to the surprise of Karen, he had been answering fan mail, but his computer had crashed, and he had lost the e-mails. Crowson had been touched by the consolations and was worried that his well wishers would think him ungrateful and rude for not writing back. “It just killed me,” he said.

Crowson is short, boyishly thin, with a ruddy complexion, and wispy blond hair graying above the ears. In the film version of his life, he might be played by William H. Macy. Crowson speaks in soft, sincere timbres with a dawdling cadence that quickens when he tells stories. He often animates his tales, such as the one about former editorial page editor George Neavoll calling him into his office one early morning, with cartoon flourishes. “I was expecting the worst,” Crowson said about the incident, “but I go back there, and he pulls back the drapes and says, ‘Have you ever seen a more beautiful sunrise in your life?’ My first thought was, ‘Whew!’ I’m telling you, a gigantic uppercase ‘WHEW’ flashed over my head.”

Born in Memphis in 1952, Crowson was raised in the churning gyre of the segregated South, on a poor white block one street removed from the blacks. His mother, a homemaker with an 8th-grade education, had childhood memories of the Great Depression, of a banker pulling up to her family’s northern Mississippi farm in a Model T to repossess the property. Crowson’s father was a third-generation Methodist preacher who pulled a second job as a bookkeeper at Memphis’ Hospital for Crippled Adults, then as a postman in the dead letter department. He preached fiery sermons, told wild bedtime stories, thought Elvis Presley was the devil’s henchman, encouraged Crowson to read the classics, but hit the roof when his son brought home Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, a novel that challenged racial inequality in the South.

When Crowson was 14, his father hit a black boy with his car on the way home from work one day. The child was rushed to the hospital and was released without any injuries, but Crowson’s father was devastated by the event. He sat in the den with his head in his hands, sobbing. The scene confused Crowson, who could not reconcile his father’s racism with such a penitent response. “When you’re young, and your parents are loving towards you, and yet they have some attitude like that,” Crowson said. “It’s really confusing when you grow up and start questioning it.”

In his own quiet way, Crowson rebelled. In church, he sketched elaborate crucifixion scenes with a red color pencil to escape the drone of hellfire-and-brimstone sermons. He devoured Hot Rod magazine each month, flipping eagerly to the inside back cover, a full-page advertisement for Big Daddy Roth T-shirts of cartoon monsters in shiny muscle cars. Around his parents, the eighth-grader strummed folk songs on the guitar they bought him for Christmas. When they left, he rocked out in front of the mirror to the Beatles and Elvis, whose music was the air that teenagers in Memphis breathed.

Crowson’s cartooning career began in ninth grade with an inauspicious drawing about school spirit in the high-school rag. Later, in college at Memphis State University (now the University of Memphis), his cartoons turned polemical. With newfound artistic freedom, Crowson drew cartoons of the school president and Tennessee governor Ray Blanton, whom Crowson says, “had a great nose,” a fitting trait to accentuate on a politician who later did jail time for selling liquor licenses. On a lark, Crowson submitted his cartoons to the Jackson Sun, a paper east of Memphis, with a cover letter that asked a question: “Wouldn’t it be great to have your own cartoonist who could draw your local politicians?”

In the late ’70s, editorial cartooning was in its heyday. Artists such as Paul Conrad of the Los Angeles Times, Pat Oliphant of the Denver Post, and Herb Block of the Washington Post had produced iconic work that captured the nation’s outrage at the Vietnam War and Watergate. As newspaper circulations swelled, more papers added full-time cartoonists. The Sun hired Crowson in 1979, and the 23-year-old was thrust into the center of a buzzing newsroom with police scanners blaring in the background, Teletype machines clacking away, reporters peering over his shoulder.

In those days, Tennessee was a state reckoning with school desegregation, unregulated hazardous waste sites, corrupt liquor lobbyists, and a cast of politicians destined for national office. Crowson drew Democrat Al Gore, then a nascent Tennessee state congressman, as a frightened owl, and took on flannel-shirt wearing Republican Lamar Alexander, now a U.S. senator, for his gubernatorial efforts at school reform. He was a liberal stamping on conservative soil, and the reaction was fierce. In response to a cartoon about the mayor of Jackson, Crowson got a letter from the mayor’s wife expressing how Crowson had made their daughter cry and calling on him to apologize.

In 1985, Crowson moved to Wichita at the urging of an editor friend. He started as an illustrator for the Eagle, adding graphics to news stories, but talked editor Davis Merritt into creating a cartoonist position two years later. As he had in Jackson, Crowson found a testy audience for his cartoons. “In both places, it was jolting for people to all of the sudden see cartoons about their community,” he said. No one in the limelight was exempt, and no belief was too sacred to nudge. In caricatures, he chronicled New York financier Ronald Perelman’s hostile takeover of Wichita-based Coleman lantern company, Sam Brownback’s strivings to fill Bob Dole’s shoes in the Senate, the school board’s dizzying decisions to pair the teaching of evolution with intelligent design, and Kansas’s contentment to be, according to Crowson, “the punch line state” for late-night comedians.

But there was a more endearing side, too. Following disasters such as Hurricane Katrina and the Greensburg tornado, Crowson created harrowing cartoons about the dignity of everyday people in the face of tragedy. He drew elegiac evocations of departed icons such as Francis Bavier, who played Aunt Bee on The Andy Griffith Show. In 2002, when his dog Al died, Crowson made the wirehaired fox terrier—who had first appeared in cartoon form in Crowson’s crusade against Kansas puppy mills—a permanent fixture in his art. “As for Al, I’ve decided that he will live on in my cartoons,” Crowson wrote in an accompanying column. “His tail still has some wagging to do.”

Crowson learned of his layoff during the Winfield Bluegrass Festival, where he was scheduled to perform before heavy rains and flooding ended the celebration. For years, Crowson had read about editorial cartoonists—many of them his heroes—losing their jobs. In the mid-’80s, there were around 200 salaried cartoonists at American newspapers. By the early aughts, the number had slipped below 90, according to a Nieman Foundation report. In the past three years, another 29 editorial cartoonists have been fired, accepted buy-outs, or—like John Sherffius at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch—have resigned over pressures to make their cartoons more politically correct. As more people get news from cable TV and online, publishers have tightened strings. “And who’s more expendable than the ink-stained wretch hunched over in the corner drawing silly pictures,” wrote cartoonist J.P. Trostle of The Chapel Hill Herald in his article “The Evaporating Editorial Cartoonist.”

Crowson cleaned out his corner office at the Eagle when he returned from Winfield. At home, he flipped through stacks of old cartoons—some of which had been reproduced in The New York Times, Newsweek, and Time—like an author re-reading forgotten sentences. “I just cringe now when I look at some of these,” he said. “I see things I wished I would have done differently.” In the following days, Crowson gathered friends around him and leaned on his family and his pastor at Calvary United Methodist church for spiritual advice. He has begun to see the disappointment as a blessing in disguise, an opportunity to focus on the things he has wanted to do for years such as sharing his passion for music and art with students and playing more gigs at local haunts.

If you met Crowson at a bar, he would probably describe himself as “a banjo player who draws cartoons,” rather than the other way around. Crowson began playing with Karen in the late ’80s. They had good harmony; he enjoyed playing banjo to her rhythm guitar. Both got divorced, and a year and a half later, they married. Their 14-year-old daughter, Haley, plays the violin, and they occasionally wrangle her into playing the fiddle on stage with them. Karen, who is a third-grade teacher at Price-Harris Elementary, is fond of reminding Haley that it could be worse: “She could have been born into a circus family. We could be making her get up on a trapeze or walk a high wire.”

The Crowsons’ songs run the gamut, from dulcet covers of “Blue Moon of Kentucky” to roaring originals with cartoon-worthy lyrics about the local school board. They have opened for big-name bluegrass acts such as Allison Krauss and have performed on the soundtrack to the History channel’s documentary The Wild West. Crowson also plays in Pop and the Boys, a jamband, The Home Rangers, a cowboy quartet, and Squaresville, a tribute band to his guilty pleasure, ’50s crooner Perry Como, whose record covers adorn Crowson’s living-room walls. To Crowson, playing music is a spiritual experience, his ethereal way of connecting to the faith of his parents and grandparents. “There are a lot of those old songs that I have a hard time not getting embarrassingly misty-eyed when I’m singing them,” Crowson said, “I can’t get very far away from the fact that family were all preachers.”

At the Watermark concert in October, Crowson played “Check Your Baggage on God’s Airline,” a tune about persevering in tough times. “This next one is a gospel song,” he told the crowd. “Liberals can write gospel songs, too.” Outside, the fall trees were burning. A smattering of latecomers straggled in, blowing warmth into cold hands. “Some people tote an awful heavy load,” Crowson yowled, picking his banjo. “They carry that baggage around until they’re dead, when they could’ve been dancing to the song of life instead.”


Jeff Tuttle said...

Nice, very nice.

sara said...

Really nice profile, Richard. I feel almost like I've had a chance to see you -- to sit at the Beacon and have a cup of coffee. I think of you and Karen often. (Funny, though, I've never thought of you as short.) Hugs. Sara Q.

Richard said...

Thanks, Jeff. You took some terrific pictures at the Murdock gig. Quite the snapster you are...hey! Jeff the Snapping Tuttle! I can see your logo! Photography by Snapping Tuttle. You better copyright that quick.

Sara -- nice to hear from you. I hope you are well, rested and tanned down there in Florida these days. Still miss seeing you at the Eggs and Bacon. You gotta blog???

Anonymous said...

Short? I happen to know he's at least half a foot taller than Perry Como!