When I first went to work at The News-Letter in September 1965, its office was on the ground floor of the Merrick Barn. It wasn’t until 1966 that co-editors Caleb Deschanel and Jim Freedman, both members of the Class of ’66, moved it to the Gatehouse — which was brilliant. I don’t know how they managed it, but the Gatehouse was — and still is — the perfect headquarters for the paper.
My main contribution to The News-Letter — and probably to Hopkins — was the creation of the cartoon Blue Jay. It now is known as “The NAG Jay,” referring to my initials, and you’ve likely still seen it around campus.
That was not my goal when I walked into the Barn. I said to Caleb and Jim, “I’d like to be an editorial cartoonist for you.” They said “Great!”, and that was that.
My first cartoon for The News-Letter nicely linked international politics and the Homewood campus. Some U.S. Information Agency libraries had been blown up overseas by anti-American factions, causing national concern here. Within a few weeks of my joining the News-Letter staff, Secretary of State Dean Rusk was scheduled to speak in Shriver Hall. I drew a cartoon of him standing in front of the Milton S. Eisenhower Library — which just had opened — saying, “How nice to see a new library that’s still in one piece.”
Although there was national and campus serendipity in that first cartoon, the ones I did subsequently mostly dealt with national and international affairs: Charles DeGaulle’s ouster of NATO from France, the growing unease about Vietnam and the military draft and the like.
However, one campus-related drawing elicited a delightful response from Alf Landon (1887-1987), the former progressive Republican governor of Kansas who was the GOP’s candidate for president in 1936 against Franklin Roosevelt. Landon was overwhelmed by FDR’s re-election landslide.
When Milton S. Eisenhower announced in 1966 that he was going to retire as the University’s president in 1967, speculation abounded over who might succeed him. For a decade, Hopkins had been led by a world-famous man. Surely the Trustees would look for a similar “name” successor.
Being a political junkie, I was aware that Alf Landon still was alive. As a jest, I designed an “Alf Landon for President of Johns Hopkins” bumper sticker. I wrote a little piece to accompany it, saying that Landon was a good guy and deserved to be president of something.
I sent the bumper sticker to Landon, saying I hoped he wouldn’t be offended. I included some of my Blue Jay comic strips, explaining that those were what I did primarily at The News-Letter. Surprisingly, Landon sent me a friendly reply. He said he would keep the bumper sticker in a scrapbook. As for my Blue Jay drawings, he wrote, “I’ve always said, as long as you stay in the comics, you know you’re in the top news.” A class act in every respect.
After I’d submitted a lot of cartoons focused on national and international politics, one day Caleb said, “We like your cartoons and are happy to print them, but they really have nothing to do with what’s going on around the campus. Could you, say, create a cartoon Blue Jay who sits in a tree and comments on campus affairs?”
That was the birth of the Blue Jay. Although I continued to do cartoons about politics, I also drew the Blue Jay complaining about the prices in the bookstore, about the difficulty of finding parking around campus (he was outraged to discover a car parked on a branch of his tree) and how students could be mugged off-campus. I drew him observing a figure labeled “Hopkins Student,” being beaten up to two figures labeled “Thugs.” The Blue Jay commented, “I guess that’s what they mean by a ‘liberal’ education...”
Some things don’t change.
Eventually, however, the Blue Jay appeared more often on the Sports pages — beating up the opponent’s mascot in the weekly lacrosse game; wearing a crown after winning a football championship; sitting in a nest, tapping away on a typewriter, as the logo for the Sports Editor’s column, “The Jay’s Nest.”
Long after I graduated, I continued to draw Blue Jays — primarily for the lacrosse team. He appeared on bumper stickers, T-shirts, caps, cups, even an umbrella. Around 1996, the Athletic Department decided to get someone to design the ornithologically correct Blue Jay it now uses. Oh, well. My Blue Jay survives — and I never could have imagined that he still would be around 55 years after I first drew him. (He’s changed a bit over the years — but doesn’t everyone?)
I was commissioned a few years ago to draw a Blue Jay for every varsity team. Many players can order T-shirts and hoodies through their teams. I’ve been told that many of them prefer The NAG Jay, which is flattering. You’ll see him throwing a football, tossing a baseball, fencing, wielding a tennis racquet and, as his better half, a Lady Jay playing field hockey and lacrosse.
The paper used to go to bed on Thursday night. In those days, it was a hot-type newspaper, meaning the copy had to get to the printer’s in time for a linotype guy to transfer it to type. My cartoons had to be photographed, then copied onto metal (in reverse) and bathed in acid to cut the lines out. That way you had a plate that could be inserted into its place on a page.
Usually I would wander into the Gatehouse around five or six. I’d often have something ready — either a Sports cartoon, comic strip or an editorial cartoon — but inevitably there were last-minute requests for a drawing, a “dingbat,” which is the term of art.
At the 50th reunion of the Class of 1969, former editor Pete Koper chuckled and said to me, “I was always SO HAPPY when I saw you walk into the office! We almost always had some space to fill, so I’d ask you to do a drawing of this-that-or-the-next thing, and presto! I had my space filled!” I was delighted by that recollection. Pete’s a great guy whom I hadn’t seen in at least 40 years.
Throughout the years, The News-Letter has been the spawning site for quite a few subsequently renowned journalists/writers. During my four years on the paper, the masthead carried the names of writers who went on to amazingly distinguished careers: Richard Ben Cramer, Peter Koper, David Schneiderman, Bruce Drake, Mark Reutter to name a few. I was a colleague of all five, after a fashion. They all were a lot smarter than I am and so could hang around the Gatehouse a lot. I needed to study my behind off. So although I became a friend of all of them, we didn’t spend that much time together. My loss.
The only one of my News-Letter associates with whom I’ve remained close friends is Caleb Deschanel — who shares my astonishment that my Blue Jay is still around. He became a famous, Oscar-nominated cinematographer and his daughters, Emily and Zooey, became acclaimed actors.
When Caleb and Jim Freedman had their 40th reunion in 2006, they were invited to visit the staff of The News-Letter. I tagged along. When it was my turn to say something, I said that I was honored to be there with Caleb and Jim, because they had been seniors and I had been only a freshman.
Jim chimed in, “And you STILL ARE!”