I continued my “wedding planner” role as NCS president in my second year, and started work on planning my second convention.
At the time, Mort Walker was running a cartoon museum in Boca Raton, Florida. The museum was lovely, but struggling. The collection had originally been housed in a charming, concrete castle in Portchester, New York and I visited there frequently when I lived in NYC and Connecticut. The move to Florida was tough on the museum which was having trouble paying the mortgage on their new building, and having trouble drawing a crowd in their new location.
My first NCS convention at New York’s World Trade Center turned a profit of something more than $30,000.00. In those days the NCS kept a “prudent reserve” of about $250,000.00 on hand –enough to cover a convention that goes wrong, and now the reserve was pushing $300,000.00. With some new money burning a hole in our pockets, I asked the board to give a $30,000.00 donation to Mort’s struggling, Florida museum. Some people objected to the NCS’s donation. The loudest critic was Wiley Miller, who draws the comic “Non-Sequitur.” Wiley publicly and loudly resigned from the NCS, on the pages of Editor & Publisher magazine, because of the donation, which he described as a “misappropriation of funds,” and he later went on to draw a series of comics depicting me as a rotund, evil character, doing various dastardly things, in the newspaper comics pages. (Wiley spent a few years in the wilderness, then rejoined the NCS, and later went on to win the Reuben Award.)
Cartoonists can be a grouchy bunch. Over time, volunteer organizations gather people who carve out niches for themselves and most of the rancor I faced as president was related to people defending a patchwork of old turf they had claimed, or thought they deserved. Some of the acrimony spilled into chat boards and social media. I didn’t win all of the battles. A big turf battle I lost was about the NCS’s longtime attorney who I wanted to fire. NCS old-timers threatened to give me major trouble if I canned their lawyer buddy, and I backed down. I ended the relationship with the NCS’s beloved travel agent, and the hefty travel agency fees on our hotel room blocks were redirected into paying our new management company’s fees. Our board was rowdy and we voted to kick one board member off of the board. I had a growing list of vocal detractors who complained loudly when I stepped on their toes. I have a pretty thick skin though, and I stirred the steamy cartoonist pot when I thought it needed stirring.
THE SECOND CONVENTION
Cartoonists in Ohio made a strong case for the next convention to be held in Cleveland, and my wife, Peg, and I did a site visit there. The Cleveland Plain-Dealer newspaper made a generous donation to the NCS to woo us. The Ohio cartoonists had proposed a hotel and made preliminary arrangements for a party at the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame. Then I got calls from Mort Walker and King Features, who were proposing that the next convention be held at Mort’s International Museum of Cartoon Art in Boca Raton, Florida.
Mort’s cartoon museum was near death. King Features proposed generous support for both the NCS and the museum by offering to throw a big party at the museum, if we brought the convention to Boca Raton. Mort and King Features thought the museum needed the publicity and a show of support from the cartoonists. Losing the museum would be a blow to our profession, and I had to agree. The NCS had held the Reubens convention in Boca Raton a few years earlier, when the museum building was under construction, but this looked like it might be the last opportunity to do what we could do to save the museum.
We had a lovely party in 2001 at the International Museum of Cartoon Art, but the museum later failed, just as we had feared. At one point, they even considered using only half of the space, and renting out the other half to a “Museum of the Holocaust” that was looking for a home in Boca Raton. I suggested that they make a revolving sign, Mickey Mouse on one side, inviting everyone to the Cartoon Museum, rotating with the Holocaust on the other side – but alas, someone must have thought the two museums weren’t a good fit.
The convention went well. Steve McGarry directed both the show at the Saturday night Reuben Awards, and a Sunday roast of cartoonist Mike Peters. I learned that many NCSers do an excellent impression of Mike Peters, including Jeff Keane who dislocated his shoulder while running up the steps to the stage, and hid the pain so the audience never knew that he was suffering. When Jeff left the stage, he was rushed off to a hospital. What a pro! Mike Luckovich took over the emcee roll for Reubens night, living up to the high standard established by Bil Keane over the course of many years. Mike did a great job, saving the day again.
I had a huge presidential suite at the Boca Raton Resort & Club, something hotels throw in as part of a big room block. These crazy suites seem like a fun perk, but they are a burden. Though they are given to the president, they are really being given to the NCS which means there should be a party in the big room all the time, even when I want to sleep. I got a separate, regular hotel room where I actually slept, and where I could make a mess without worrying that someone might walk in.
I asked Arnie Roth to do the theme art for the convention, and I enjoyed working with Arnie as I did with Jack Davis the year before. This is the best part of the NCS president’s job. I also wrote a column in each of our newsletters and a different artist drew my portrait for each column, so I collected a bunch of great portraits. And the board gave me a lovely Jeff MacNelly original as a parting gift; it hangs in my living room.
THE CONGRESSIONAL GOLD MEDAL
Near the end of my tenure, my attention turned back to Sparky. I got a call from Senator Dianne Feistein’s office asking for help. The Senator had authored legislation that would give the Congressional Gold Medal to Sparky posthumously; this was America’s highest civilian honor and Sparky would be the only cartoonist in history to receive it. The bill should have sailed through the Senate, but it was being blocked by one senator, conservative, Republican Jesse Helms from North Carolina. Senator Feinstein had tried everything she could and was looking for help. Helms objected because he thought the award was “frivilous.” This was an important award for the whole cartooning profession to show that cartoons are not “frivilous.” Helms wouldn’t budge and it looked like the Gold Medal was going nowhere.
I reached out to a bunch of cartoonists asking if they had any contacts or ideas on how to twist Helms’ arm and I found Marie Woolf, a talented cartoonist whose work I syndicated back when my CagleCartoons.com syndicate was young. Marie had previously worked for Republican Senator Orrin Hatch from Utah; she called Hatch and made an impassioned plea for help. Marie asked me to have the NCS send a huge, red white and blue “patriotic” bouquet of flowers to Hatch’s office, which I did. That patriotic bouquet was a whopper.
It turned out that Hatch was a cartoon fan; he twisted Helm’s arm and Helms backed down, clearing the way for the Gold Medal –so the credit for the Gold Medal really belongs to Marie Woolf and Orrin Hatch. The House and Senate approved the award with only one dissenting vote, from Congressman Ron Paul of Texas. Hatch turned out to be a nice guy, and he later wrote a forward for my Best Political Cartoons of the Year 2006 book. There was a lovely Congressional Gold Medal celebration in Washington, but alas, by the time the Gold Medal party happened, I was no longer NCS president, and I missed out on the celebration.
By the time my presidential term came to an end, each of my Reuben conventions had turned a good profit; I inherited the NCS in good financial shape and left it in better shape. The new management company was collecting the membership dues properly, had cleaned up the records, and acclimated to the idiosyncrasies of our quirky needs; they were well-positioned to take on much of the work of future NCS events. I had cleared out much of the patchwork of claimed turf. We had raised expectations for more ambitious Reubens weekends. And, frankly, my wife Peg did most of my work.
Even though this all happened twenty years ago, it still makes me feel tired when I think about it; but I have lots of nice trophies and memories from the experience and I continue to enjoy the NCS as a civilian.
Some cartoonists complain that they don’t “get anything” from the NCS –what they get is the opportunity to hang with their colleagues and meet their cartoon heroes. I wholeheartedly recommend that all professional cartoonists join the NCS, visit the NCS site for more information about joining.
Read more old stuff about my career as a cartoonist on DarylCagle.com: