As a 20-something would-be cartoonist, I traveled from Bloomington, Ind., to New York to watch an hourlong discussion of political cartoons by Jules Feiffer, Paul Szep and Tony Auth. Afterwards, a simple act of generosity from Tony changed my life.
When the program wound down, I rushed the stage to thank the cartoonists profusely, naively professing my eagerness to one day join their ranks. When Tony realized that I'd actually hitchhiked several hundred miles he was flabbergasted. He insisted that if I were to have but one evening in New York, I should at least tag along with him and his cartoonist pals.
And what an evening. He took me to an opening of David Levine caricatures, where I met Pat Oliphant, Jerry Robinson and a host of famous New Yorker cartoonists. I was awestruck. There was dinner somewhere with about 20 cartoonists. I remember the television newsman Sander Vanocur dropping by the table, in the company of Dick Cavett. When the check came, they simply split it 20 ways, until Tony realized I had no money, at which point he recalculated.
He wasn't finished. As the evening wore down, he asked if I absolutely had to be back in Indiana the next day. Of course I didn't. He then gave me train fare to Washington and phoned the legendary Washington Post cartoonist Herblock to tell him to expect me, which was something like introducing a little leaguer to Babe Ruth.
Twenty-four hours later, I was being ushered around the Post by the country's most influential and prodigious cartoonist, introduced to editor Ben Bradlee, treated like I somehow deserved to be there, not like the abject hack stoner dropout that I, in fact, was.
There was an art editor at the Post who privately told me I didn't have what it took. "There's only one Herblock, one Jeff MacNelly, one Mike Peters, one Tony Auth, but there are a whole lot of you."
Those were his exact words. They meant precisely nothing to me, next to being welcomed so warmly by Tony and his friends.
Six years later, I was hired here in Lexington, coincidentally by Creed Black, who gave Tony that first break at the Inquirer. I eventually stopped trying to emulate Tony's fluid and elegant line, found my own serviceable style, and have been fortunate enough to hang on.
Two years ago, when Tony had a show at the Michener museum, he invited me to join him and Feiffer for a panel discussion. I'd have crawled to Philly for the honor, but this time there was airfare and accommodations. I confess that I reveled a bit internally at the unlikely 35-year journey to join those two on the dais.
I don't know if Tony, who died of brain cancer on Sunday, was sick at that point. But if I had thought for a second that it would be the last time I'd see him, I'd have related for the hundredth time how indebted I would always be. Come to think of it, I always did that, and he always shrugged it off as something that anyone would have done.
They wouldn't, but Tony did. Thanks again, my friend. I miss you.
Reach Joel Pett at firstname.lastname@example.org.