The cartooning world lost a true giant yesterday. Bil Keane, creator of The Family Circus, has passed away at age 89.
I’ll never forget the first time I met Bil…
In 1999, Anna and I attended our very first Reuben awards in San Antonio. I was a new member and basically knew no one, so we walked about wide-eyed seeing all the legendary cartoonists milling about like Charles Schulz, Jack Davis, Jeff MacNelly and many more. One of those legends I knew and admired the most was Bil Keane. “The Family Circus” was a staple in our home growing up, and while my cartooning tastes took a bit of a more “MAD” direction as I grew up, I always had a soft spot for that feature. Not knowing what Bil looked like, I had someone point him out to me.
“Bil always emcees the Reuben ceremony,” I was told. “You’ll get to see him do that tonight.”
Knowing that “The Family Circus” was a very sweet and gentle strip, I mentioned I was surprised they didn’t have an emcee with a little more of a sharp-tongued approach.
“Just wait. You haven’t seen Bil emcee yet,” they replied.
I sure hadn’t. I was laughing so hard throughout the awards I barely recall who won what. To say Bil Keane was only quick-witted is like saying Olympic superstar Usian Bolt is just “sort-of fast”. He was one of the funniest guys I’d ever met. Anna and I shared a shuttle with he and his wife Thel from the airport to the site of the 2002 Reubens in Cancun, and enjoyed their company and stories of how they met and about their wonderful family. One of the things we talked about was Hawai’i, where Anna and I were planning a trip. Bil told us about a hotel he and Thel always stayed at on Waikiki, and when Anna and I visited Honolulu we spend a few nights in that same hotel. Upon check in, the bellman asked what I did for a living as he was checking in our bags. When I told him I was a cartoonist, he said they had a regular guest who was a cartoonist they all knew and thought was a great guy… that was, of course, Bil Keane.
His son Jeff is a good friend of mine, and we have spent a lot of time together on USO cartoonist tours as well as working on the NCS board, where he was president preceding me. I got to hear a lot of great stories about his dad, who also did cartoonist USO tours to Vietnam during that conflict.
Bil was one of the true legends of cartooning. An active member of the National Cartoonists Society, Bil served as president from 1981-1983 as well as emceeing the Reubens for many, many years. It was a true honor and privilege to have been able to meet him and get to know him a bit. He will be sorely missed, and my heart goes out to Jeff and his wife Melinda, their kids and their entire family.
Few cartoonists left a legacy like Bil did. We were all lucky to have enjoyed his talent for so many years.
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