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Drawing Between the Lines With Editorial Cartoonist Charlie Daniel

Charlie Daniel

Charlie Daniel

By Chandra Harris-McCray

In these parts, Charlie Daniel is just as legendary as Charles Schulz was for Peanuts.

But his rather pointed wit leaves no room for a hapless Charlie Brown and blanket-cuddling Linus as he pokes, prods and piques the policies and foibles of presidents and football coaches. National leaders, as well as Tennessee governors, have collected copies of their exaggerated faces, insults and all, with the banter ordinary citizens think and wish they could say.

At 80+, Daniel's artistic gift and smart-aleck puns, captured daily in the Knoxville News Sentinel, will continue to delight the public's imagination at the UT Libraries through a collection of 12,000 cartoons-with more coming-that he donated.

He is his own worst critic, despite the notoriety of authoring four books of his work and averaging 300 cartoons a year-he's only taken off once, to his chagrin, for eight weeks to recover from quadruple bypass heart surgery.

"That's just not that funny anymore," he says while barely viewing a smattering of more than a half century of his creative thoughts on a long table in the special collections area of Hodges Library.

"And what about this one," he said, glancing at his drawing of Red China revolutionist Mao Tse-tung with his "arm of power" stretched over an easel with the words, 'Give me what I want or I'll blow you up.'

"The idea was good, but the art just stinks."

While in college, with a neighbor's nudging, he took his "refined squiggles" to The Daily Tar Heel student newspaper. He became the paper's editorial cartoonist. For 50 cents a cartoon he put "the doodles in the margins of his accounting notes" to good use before switching his major from business to political science.

"I really wanted to study football," says Daniel, who considered coming to UT, but was swayed by a football scholarship at UNC.

"I never dreamed I would wind up as a cartoonist," he said. "I always wanted to be a coach. I had entered the university as a football player and started on the freshman team. I planned to major in physical education and become a coach."

Never formally trained to draw, let alone be a cartoonist, Daniel says, "Drawing was just a hobby," as he moved down the table to another decade of witty drawings. The metamorphosis from hobby to profession is visible. But he still offers a side-to-side "it-is-just-OK" head nod before he quips, "Maybe I should have tried that one again."

With his baggy trousers and a Santa Claus-like mustache, Daniel's "second chance" comes every morning by 7:30 a.m. He makes his way to his drawing board at the News Sentinel. It is where he has been banging out provocative banter since 1992, after his doodling career at the Knoxville Journal, which began in 1958, came to an end with the closing of the Journal.

"I have a simple routine that works well. I arrive at the office early, drink some coffee, walk around and wait for the muse to show up and give me inspiration," he said with a grin. "Unfortunately, the muse usually sleeps in until at least 11 o'clock.

"It's like the composer Johnny Mercer once described about making great lyrics to such American standards like Moon River. 'Waiting around the bend, my huckleberry friend, Moon River and me'; where did that come from?

"I think all creative people have that," he says. "You don't question where it comes from; you just give thanks that it came."

Still doing a handful of drafts before settling on his final drawing for the paper, Daniel said, "For cartoonists the greatest tribute you can get is having your work stuck up on a refrigerator."

Or in the case of Marshall Ramsey (UTK '91), Daniel's work was more than just admired. Daniel influenced and taught Ramsey not just how to draw cartoons, but how to be an editorial cartoonist. The two-time Pulitzer finalist's work graces the pages of The Clarion-Ledger.

"I got my diploma from UT, but I got my education from Charlie," says Ramsey, who named his first born Daniel.

Born with an uncanny mix of cleverness and humor in Richmond, Va., Daniel grew up 80 miles away "reading the funnies" in Weldon, N.C.-the Rockfish Capital of the World-he points out, in true Daniel style, the Roanoke River town's claim to fame.

Rattling off his first introductions to newspaper comedy, he said, "I read the Raleigh News & Observer in the morning; the afternoon Raleigh paper; the Norfolk Ledger-Dispatch; and then I would go next door to my grandmother's house and read all the comic strips in the Richmond Times-Dispatch."

And what he could not get from the black-and-white newspaper print, "I got from my family. They were a bunch of comedians and storytellers.

"I didn't realize I was funny until I got away from them. I got around total strangers and realized, 'Golly, I am funny!'"

He can cackle and find humor and humility in an album of rejection letters his mother kept when he was scouring the country looking for a job upon graduating from UNC in 1958. At 28, he "had matured a bit" after spending time at Virginia's Fort Union Military Academy and being drafted by the U.S. Marines a year into college.

His maturity was about to climb another notch with fatherhood. His wife, Patsy, whom he knew he was going to marry after giving her a box of Valentine's candy in the second grade, was seven months pregnant.

"I needed a job-really any job," he says. "I applied to 40 newspapers and only two of them even bothered to write back.

"One editor who replied was in Roanoke-at least he took the time to write and turn me down."

The other guy was the Journal's Guy Smith, who is characterized as a "fire-breathing, hard-core Republican czar," who hired Daniel to be a part-time reporter.

After spending one day with a cop reporter and struggling over one paragraph, only later to be ribbed by a sports editor who said he had difficulty spelling hard words like 'the,' 'it,' and 'Daniel,' he exchanged his journalist pen permanently for a cartoonist's one.

"If I had not found a job with a newspaper, my start would have been as a cigarette salesman," said Daniel, who lit "my last cigarette after my father died from emphysema. Smoking got the best of my sister, too, who died at 47 from lung cancer."

Continuing to "blow smoke" of a different kind with his choice of words and caricatures on the quandaries of life, Daniel lives to prick the hearts of humanity and "get people to loosen up and not be so uptight."

With the longevity genes of his mother, who lived to be 105 and did not retire from being her church's secretary until she was 92, the father of two and grandfather of four said he is still working to be better due to the prodding of his mother.

"After 25 years and releasing my first book, she told me, 'Son, your work almost looks professional!'"

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