An Indelible Stain
Mike Keefe was born November 6, 1946 in Santa Rosa, California. He had two sisters and a brother. They lived in the San Francisco Bay area until Keefe was in second grade when they moved to St. Louis, MO, where Keefe graduated from Ritenour High School in 1964.
His brother died at age two and a half, devastating his mom and forcing his father, Ray Keefe, to find ways to care for her while earning a living. Running out of resources, he took the family back to California to be closer to other family. It didn’t work. The Keefe family fell apart. Mike, at age 17, was on his own and started wandering. Mike’s two sisters were put in foster homes. He lost contact with his family for years. His father cared for his wife until she died in 1971. Ray died in 1980.
Keefe hitchhiked across America for a couple of years, worked for a year at the Chevrolet plant in Leeds, a suburb of Kansas City and then was drafted into the Marine Corps. After his discharge, using the GI Bill, he went to the Univ.of Missouri-Kansas City (UMKC) and earned a Bachelor’s, Master’s and completed the coursework for a PhD in mathematics.
Of all the turmoil during the early 1970s, the killing of four unarmed students at Kent State University in Ohio by the Ohio National Guard affected Keefe the most. The guardsmen fired 67 rounds in 13 seconds, killing four students and wounding nine others.
During this time, while studying at UMKC, Keefe started drawing cartoons for the University News. He became friends with Bill Sanders, cartoonist at The Milwaukee Journal. Sanders heard that Pat Oliphant, editorial cartoonist for The Denver Post, had taken a new job. He wrote a referral letter about Keefe to the Post who hired him in 1975. At that point he had drawn about 50 cartoons.
Since then, Keefe has won many awards including the Fischetti Editorial Cartoon Award, National Headliners Club, Society of Professional Journalists and Best of the West contests. He was a John S. Knight Fellow at Stanford University (studied short story writing) and is a past president of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists. He was a juror for the 1997 and 1998 Pulitzer Prizes in Journalism. He won the Pulitzer Prize in 2011.
He retired in late 2011 from The Denver Post after 36 years.
Will you continue cartooning or try something new?
I’m still doing one, or more, cartoons a week for syndication (featured in more than 800 papers through Cagle.com) and the Post is running these. I’m enjoying the break. I want to try some experimental stuff. It’s time to stretch out and try something with the art of the cartoon in a fine art sense.
In 1979 my wife, Anita, and I, vacationed in Colmar, France. I was totally charmed by the town and drew the town square including a church and steeple. What I didn’t know at the time was that my dad’s unit, the12th Armored Division had liberated Colmar in World War II. I started doing early research on the unit and learned about Colmar. I recalled a newspaper clipping from my dad’s trunk about him volunteering to take out a sniper in a church steeple. As he was coming down he was fired upon by his own men. It turns out the incident occurred in a nearby town. So, I had been very close to where he had been and didn’t know it.
So now I am devoting a lot of time to writing a book, which is kind of about the 12th Armored Division but really it is turning into more about my relationship with my dad. I’m discovering who he was. He didn’t know me and I didn’t know him really. So, I’m trying to rediscover him. I have a lot of regrets I’m trying to address. I’ve been thinking about this for many years. I would always run out of time to delve into all this but now I have the time.
How are the pieces of the puzzle coming together?
I’ve discovered that my dad rode a motorcycle across America in 1935 with his friend Jack Auxier. Jack recorded a tape about the two of them in 1982, two years after dad died. I have a transcript of the tape. It’s full of great detail, a real period piece.
I found a roster of Troop A, 92nd Recon Batallion of the 12th Armored and recognized the name Cecil Jones as someone dad had mentioned when I was a kid. I tracked Jones down to a small town in Oklahoma and called him. That’s when he told me that he and my dad had been the best of friends, how my dad was a master on the motorcycle. Cecil had named his son Ray, after dad.
I also found the battalion surgeon from my dad’s unit living in Tucson. He wrote a memoir on the 12th Armored called Our War for the World and it is one of the best war accounts I ever read. He didn’t know my dad but the book describes the war and all the places my dad had been. I’ve been talking to him for several months trying to fill in some of the blanks.
So with all my research I come over here to the Metropolis Café every day and write 500 words.
What got you thinking about national issues and politicians and drawing cartoons? Was it while you were trying to solve math problems?
Well it was the day the students were killed at Kent State in 1970. I was in a Marine Corps enlisted men’s club when the news broke. The other Marines started cheering for the National Guard. Cheering was not my reaction.
Do you get the sense that somehow you are speaking for the rest of us?
That’s true I consider myself a commentator just like an editorial writer or a columnist. I boil something down to a nugget about an issue and the reaction I get is, “I never thought about it like that. That’s exactly how I feel.” If I get those kinds of reactions I’m real happy. I also get very negative stuff too. Readers can get very angry. I feel like I am contributing to the dialog on issues in as concise a way as I can find, using humor; not always. Some of them are dramatic.
On one hand you get to speak out but you also have to deal with the outrage coming back at you.
You develop a tough skin that I don’t think I was born with. You realize that if you weren’t getting those kinds of reactions you aren’t doing the job right. You aren’t being provocative enough. Now if I do something that outrages everybody, I may have stepped over the line in some way, and that has happened occasionally. When people who normally agree with what I have to say are outraged, then I have to think, well maybe I didn’t censor myself enough on that.
How do you fend it off?
It used to be I got a lot of letters. When somebody sits down to write a letter they think about it more and the comments are more interesting. Now with instant-gratification email people just shoot off nasty stuff and when I get that I just ignore it. If somebody calls and wants to talk to me about an issue, I’ll talk to them. They say their piece and I explain what I was trying to do. I don’t apologize but I try to clarify my position. It is a dialogue. I don’t want to take pot shots from my foxhole and duck down and avoid any crossfire. I engage. I’m not above getting emotional about these issues myself so I try to channel it in some constructive way that might give somebody a laugh.
It’s been said that once you tag a politician with a caricature, it leaves an indelible stain that the public will often remember more than his portrait; more than his policies.
Nixon was the easiest subject for this. I actually drew cartoons of Nixon in the early 1970s — his ski jump nose and more. You need to be looking for one thing that stands out, like Obama’s ears. Everyone else seems to be doing his ears. That’s his indelible mark. Yet you have to be careful not to follow the pack with the caricatures though.
How would you describe the contribution you’ve made to political commentary?
I haven’t given that a lot of thought over the years. It’s sort of me and a piece of paper. I know that I’m contributing somehow. It’s been really interesting this year. I get lots of emails now congratulating me. I had one this morning that just said, “Mike we miss you”. That’s gratifying. I don’t think the world would be any different if I hadn’t drawn a cartoon in my life. I know I’ve affected people emotionally at time and intellectually at time. So that’s satisfying.
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