February 15, 1978… a day which will live in infamy… okay, well… maybe not. Anyhow for your reading enjoyment, this is what the day that the first Klyde Morris cartoon appeared in public was like for me; the newborn cartoonist plus some immediate results and non-results.
Keep in mind that I was a second trimester freshman at the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University where “The Avion” was the very popular student newspaper. Wednesday was always “Avion Day” and stacks of the newspapers were dumped at strategic locations all over campus at about lunch time. For the rest of the afternoon when you showed up for class EVERYONE had an Avion open and was reading it at their desk. It was not at all uncommon for the class instructor to be sitting there with an open Avion before class started. So, when you put an item into the Avion, everyone from the lowest freshman to the university president was going to see it. That was the environment into which I submitted my first cartoon strip.
The Avion staff had snuck that first cartoon strip into the paper because the idiot editor, the late Ray Katz, had ideas to make the cartoon what he wanted rather than what I created. It went to the printer on Monday night and after I waited all day Tuesday, it finally appeared on Wednesday the 15th.
Getting off the bus from our off-campus dorm (a motel out by the interstate called the Royal Scottish Inn, and in Riddle speak “The RSI”) I snapped up an Avion and headed off to my Nav. II class at the flight line complex. I took a moment to make sure the cartoon looked okay. After all, I’d hand drawn all of the frames and done the whole cartoon with a black Bic pen, so who knew what it would print up as. To my surprise it looked just fine. Now, however, came the real acid test- what would be the reaction… if any.
Strolling into the classroom I got my first taste of the best part of being a cartoonist… no one knows who you are! Since my last name is so hard for teachers to pronounce, on the first day of every class the instructors took one look at it and asked if they could just call me by my first name when they called roll. Of course my registered first name isn’t “Wes” so when the call went out for “Walter” I just said “here” and that was it. Thus, Wes Oleszewski never answered the roll in any of my early college classrooms. Now, I could sit in class with anonymity and watch the others as they opened their Avions with my cartoon strip at the bottom of page 2. There were no other cartoons residing in the Avion at that time.
As the guy in front of me opened to page 2 he looked right at the cartoon… and then went to the sports section without as much as a snicker. Nuts! Next over beside me another guy sat down, opened his Avion and then went directly to the fraternities page. Crap! The guy two rows up opened to page two, then folded his paper over to read page 3. Shit! Everyone that I watched seemed to just skim right past my cartoon. There wasn’t a single snicker or “Hey look at this,” or anything… no reaction what-so-ever. In my chemistry class that afternoon, it was the same exact nothing! I got back on the bus to the RSI and no one there seemed to notice my cartoon either. I dragged myself dejectedly to Room 182 and flopped into my bunk. I was sure that my cartoon had bombed. When my roommate got back he said that he hadn’t even looked at it. Gee, that helped. My other roommate just shrugged and said, “Yeah, I saw it.”
Late that afternoon we got a rain shower that moved through which added to my gloom as I boarded the bus back to campus to have dinner. As the bus stopped at the doors to the University Center, the bus doors opened and I saw a rain-soaked Avion resting in the gutter opened to my cartoon. The guy who got off the bus ahead of me stepped on the cartoon.
Cutting one’s wrists with a butter knife from the cafeteria was an option, but with my luck the paramedics would get there in time to save me. I considered that the food alone may just do me in. Then it dawned on me that in the strip I’d lampooned not only William Stafford, the director of admissions, but worst of all Jack Hunt the University President. Stafford probably couldn’t do me a lot of harm, but President Hunt could boot my smart ass right out of the school with little more than an afterthought. Now I’d put my college life and my whole future at risk over a bombed cartoon! I figured I was deader meat than the over-cooked cheese burger sitting in front of me.
The following day I went to the Avion office for their weekly meeting. I just knew that Katz was going to carve me up in front of everyone… but he wasn’t there. In fact no one was there but Keith Kollarik the assistant editor. He told me that there would be no paper this week because Monday was President’s Day. I mentioned that the first strip was a dud and he just turned and said, “It was fine, we’ll need another one for the next issue.”
Now I was puzzled.
What I would not actually realize until the following autumn was that I’d been judging the reaction through a keyhole. Where I was not looking, the reaction was that the strip was a major hit. So, I spent the rest of that spring 1978 trimester with my head down writing cartoons, turning them in and then running for cover. Meanwhile, the other students, the faculty, the staff, the administrators and most importantly President Hunt, loved the strips from the beginning.
I should have been tipped off when I got a message in my mailbox saying that Dr. Jeff Ledewitz, the VP of Student Affairs, wanted to see me in his office. I ignored that. Soon a memo came up to the Avion office telling me that Dr. Ledewitz wanted to see me. I vanished into the student body as best I could. Finally, Dr. Ledewitz’s secretary May, came walking into the Avion office and she had my photo in her hand! Looking around she spotted me. “You!” she pointed, “Come with me, Dr. Ledewitz wants to see you.” That was it… I was getting my butt kicked out of school. But all he wanted to do was tell me how much he loved the cartoons- especially the ones about him. Ooooook. (Many years later he told me that when we met I was not at all what he expected me to be. Instead of a wild and crazy cartoonist, I was this meek quiet guy. I told him that was because I was expecting him to kick my ass out of school.) As I left his office after that first meeting he had one final word of advice, “Oh, by the way, President Hunt’s looking for you.” A wave of doom swept over me.
About a week later I was coming down the staircase in the UC making my way from the Avion to the cafeteria when I looked up and saw President Hunt coming through the doors at the north end of the building! AKK! I knew that President Hunt knew every single student either by name, face, reputation or all of the above- so he’d know me in a heartbeat! When I got to the bottom of the stairs I ducked around the corner and pinned myself against the wall. I stood there hardly breathing until I was sure he’d passed, then I bee-boped out and headed to the cafeteria to fetch my morning tea. As I passed one of the pillars just outside the entrance, an arm reached out and nabbed me by the elbow! “GOTCHA!” Hunt barked. I probably could have paid off my tuition with the solid gold brick that I shit at that moment. But, just like Dr. Ledewitz, all President Hunt wanted to do was tell me how much he enjoyed my cartoons. He then offered me, “an open door” to his office to drop in and talk about anything. Yes, I often took him up on that. (A quarter of a century later, Dean Rockett told me that I was only one of two students that Hunt ever extended that privilege to. Hell, I thought he did it for every student.) Many times we disagreed on subjects, but when it came to “our” university we saw eye to eye. In one such visit in the early 1980s he said that I didn’t realize just how much power I had on campus. I scoffed big time- “ME… power… HA! I’m just a workin’ class Polack kid from the wrong side of Saginaw, Michigan who draws funny pictures that happen to show up in the school paper… I don’t even know what power means,” I told him. He’d always lean back in his chair when he went into teaching mode- and as he did that he said, “If you drew a cartoon that told everyone to break the windows out of the University Center, the next morning I’d get calls from campus security telling me there were windows broken.” I was shocked, “Good Lord,” I half gasped, “I’d NEVER do ANYTHING like that!” President Hunt smiled and said, “Exactly. That’s why you’re the right guy to be doing what you’re doing right now.” He went on to explain that our university was going through growing pains and would continue to do so for many years to come. As long I was lampooning him and the other characters and events on campus, the students would read it and say, “Yeah! That hits them where it counts,” rather than taking their frustration out on the property, the staff and the campus security. President Hunt gave me a wider view of our university and my cartoon strip, as well as my own, place in it.
From that point on, I saw Klyde Morris as something much more important than just a cartoon- plus I was more careful about where I aimed it.