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Locher the Rembrandt of "ungentlemanly art"

January 27, 2011 — Source: Naperville Sun — Author: Kathy Millen

For the last 30 years, his daily cartooning has included the Dick Tracy comic strip. Last week he announced his retirement from the strip, first created in 1931 by Chester Gould. He said he’s ready to hand the reins over to artist Joe Staton and writer Mike Curtis. At age 81, Locher said he doesn’t want to put the comic strip in jeopardy should something happen to him. His current story line will conclude March 13.

But the prolific Locher isn’t capping his pen. He will continue producing five editorial cartoons a week for Tribune Media Services. A painter and sculptor, he plans to do more fine art. Also, he is working on a book of his editorial cartoon collection.

The latter inspired this observation from Locher: “Editorial cartooning is like the blind javelin thrower at the Olympics,” he said. “We don’t win any awards, but we keep the crowd alert.”

That’s not quite true. Locher has won numerous awards for his work, including the John Fischetti Editorial Cartoon Award, the Peter Lisagor Award, The Thomas Nast Award, National Cartoonist Society Silver T-Square Award and, in 1983, the Pulitzer Prize. He also has been awarded two honorary doctorates and is in the Fox Valley Hall of Fame.

Presidential fodder

Many of the public figures he’s lampooned over the years have been his biggest fans. After drawing a cartoon in which he depicted Jimmy Carter as Mr. Peanut, Locher got a call from the president asking if he could have the original for the Oval Office. President Bill Clinton once sent Locher a caricature that Clinton created of himself. That hangs on Locher’s studio wall along with autographed pictures of political leaders Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, Henry Kissinger, Gerald Ford and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

One of Locher’s most vivid memories is getting a call from Reagan’s chief of staff, inviting him to lunch at the White House the next day. He flew to Washington where he, and three other political cartoonists, met with the president.

“We asked him ‘what was the occasion?’” Locher recalled. “He said ‘you four did a cartoon on me that normally would get me mad as hell. But then I started to analyze it and you were right. So let’s discuss the cartoons.’”

And they did, over medallions of beef, hashbrown potatoes, a gelatin salad and pumpkin pie served by white-gloved attendants on plates bearing the official seal of the United States.

Locher said Reagan’s hair had long been caricatured by editorial cartoonists, so he asked the president that day if those locks were real. To everyone’s amusement, Reagan responded by putting his hands in his hair and mussing it up.

“How do you criticize a man in office after that?” Locher asked. “You have to be hard-bitten, nail-biting, never caring. I went after him, as usual.”

The cartoon that earned Locher the Pulitzer Prize hangs in a light blue frame on the wall in his studio. In it, Reagan, dressed as Superman, bursts out of a telephone booth labeled “Diplomacy” and falls flat on his face near a sign pointing the way to Central America. There is a tradition at newspapers when one of their own wins a Pulitzer, Locher said. All work ceases as the honoree stands on a desk in the newsroom and gives a little speech. As Locher was making his ascent, someone gave him a valuable insight: “Remember, today’s Pulitzer wraps tomorrow’s fish.”

That stuck with Locher. His wife, Mary, confirms that his many successes have never gone to his head.

“We’ve met so many wonderful people and that’s really been a great perk,” she said. “But it’s never made him pompous. He’s still the same dear person.”

The laugh’s on him

Stan Nash, his friend and neighbor, said in the more than four decades he’s known him, Locher has always been able to take a joke.

Nash remembers one of the annual camping trips he and a few friends took with Locher many years ago. Locher insisted they revisit a particular shop along the way because it had great ice cream bars. When they arrived, Nash bought an ice cream bar and instructed the clerk to call Locher by name and tell him it was nice to see him again this year.

“For a half hour after we left, he said ‘I can’t get over she still remembered me,’” Nash said.

Locher pokes fun at himself as well. During his early days at The Tribune, Sun-Times cartoonist John Fischetti, whom he had never met, invited him to lunch. He joined Fischetti at a nearby restaurant, and was excited to learn that columnist Mike Royko was going to join them.

Royko arrived and welcomed Locher to the journalism profession. They had lunch and chatted. All was going well until Royko casually remarked that Fischetti’s cartoon that day was awful. Fischetti responded that his work didn’t stink as frequently as Royko’s did. Tempers flared as they continued to trade insults and Locher reconsidered his choice of profession.

“Mike said, ‘John, you are finally getting to me’ and he picked up a hard roll and threw it at him,” Locher recalled. “John grabs Royko by the tie and drags him to the front door. When they got to the front door, they waved to me as the bill came.”

A lasting legacy

Last year, Locher gave the city of Naperville an enduring gift. He designed a 9-foot bronze statue of the fedora-wearing detective that was installed along the Riverwalk as part of the Naperville Century Walk exhibit.

Locher and his wife frequently visit the statue.

“I made a point of going down there when it was pouring rain to see how the water ran off of it,” he said. “And I went down there during a semi-blizzard to see where the snow had settled (on it.) I went down to see how the flood (affected) it. We couldn’t get near it, there was so much water.”

The Lochers have lived in Naperville for more than 40 years. They have a son, Steve, a daughter, Jan, and five grandchildren. Another son, John, died 25 years ago at age 25. In his memory, the Lochers established a scholarship program for promising college cartoonists. Of the 22 scholarship recipients so far, 13 are employed as cartoonists and two have won Pulitzer Prizes.

Hoping to further inspire young people, Locher is among 100 notables that include Walter Cronkite, President George H.W. Bush and Desmond Tutu, who are featured in the newly published book “Wisdom from Giants: Contemporary Legends Give Students Advice.”

Locher’s work has taken him all over the world. Several years ago, he was among a group of editorial cartoonists invited to visit Russia to meet their counterparts from Pravda. He brought with him a bronze bust he made of Leonid Brezhnev which was placed in the Kremlin.

The artists from the two countries passed around their drawings. After seeing one of Locher’s cartoons, which took a jab at President Carter, one of the Russians asked why American journalists criticize their leaders so much. Locher responded that American leaders are not perfect and cartoonists hope some good will come from their critiques.

Locher, then, asked why Russian journalists didn’t criticize their own leaders.

Because, the Russian said, they are so perfect they don’t need criticism. Then he winked at Locher.

And that’s the beauty of working as an editorial cartoonist in the United States, Locher said. Every day he is free to draw it as he sees it. And if people in high places get upset over today’s cartoon, there still will be another one tomorrow.

“We go right ahead the next day and do the same thing all over again because we’re the burr under the saddle,” he said. “We watch the battle up on the hill and when the battle’s over, we run down the hill and shoot the wounded.”

 

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