Sorry, Charlie!

The Twin Cities mark the occasion of Charles Schulz's retirement by scrambling to turn him into a hometown hero

 

In the month since the St. Paul mayor's office put out the call for ideas on how best to honor Schulz, it's gotten hundreds of suggestions via e-mail and phone calls. (The Minneapolis mayor's office, on the other hand, says there has been no interest whatsoever expressed in honoring Schulz.) But before pressing forward, the St. Paul staff--led by Erich Mische--wants to know how Charles and Jeannie Schulz might feel about a hometown tribute, and what might be appropriate. To get a better sense of that, Mische has called into action a few constituents who know the couple.

Their first meeting takes place in late December at the St. Paul Tivoli Too design and sculpture studio, where company president Randi Johnson and her staff of 40 create, among other things, prototypes for the Peanuts sculptures and figurines that manufacturers will mass-produce. Johnson has been a friend to Schulz (she refers to him as Sparky, the nickname given him when he was two days old) and his family for years, since she first got a license to create Peanuts jewelry and went out to visit him in his California home.

Tony Nelson

The group casts about for a fitting salute: A Charles Schulz section of the Children's Museum? An interactive Peanuts picnic area downtown? A statue in Rice Park? A street name? A scholarship? "Obviously, we want to make sure it's tasteful, dignified, that it reflects his history, as well as St. Paul's," Mische says. "The sky's the limit on this one."

The sky's the limit? Mische says the tribute is a high priority for the city--Schulz's looming illness does press a certain urgency on the project--though it's unclear how fast it might come together even with all the sudden scrambling about. But why hasn't it happened before? The strip, after all, has been successful for almost half a century. As Mruz points out, such far-flung places as Paris and Rome have exalted the cartoonist with national art exhibits and birthday jubilees.

"There's always the sense that someone else has taken care of it," Mische admits. His explanation: "You wake up in the morning, and you have had the idea in the back of your head, and you read the paper and see that this guy you've taken for granted--not just St. Paul, but the world--is retiring. You realize we're all mortal, and it turns on a green light."

That explanation doesn't satisfy critics. When it comes to St. Paul's late push to claim Schulz as its own, some suggest that the city simply bided its time until Schulz was making headlines, then glommed onto the acclaim. "St. Paul is seeking for fame, which is not easily found," says Marshall Fishwick, a Virginia Tech professor of American Studies who specializes in the study of heroes. "We, as human beings, identify with fame--you know, touch the hem of the garment. That's this process that's going on."

 

A few years back, Dan O'Gara was tending bar at his family's pub in St. Paul. One of the servers came to him, he recalls, and said, "There's an old guy down at the end of the bar. He says he used to live here." He wanted to go into his dad's old barbershop, O'Gara remembers. He said he lived in Apartment 2.

"I still had no idea," O'Gara says. "We walked through the apartment. He said it was much smaller than he recalled.'' Then the tall man, dressed in corduroys and a flannel shirt, called his family together in the kitchen and said, "This is where it all started."

Today at O'Gara's the walls are covered with framed cartoons and photos paying homage to the Peanuts creator. For the most part, the reverence for Schulz has been personal and private, displayed in reminiscences around the kitchen table and on the walls of the odd watering hole rather than exhibited in city parks or civic institutions.

Still, the regard for Schulz--as a cartoonist, and as a thinker--runs deep. "He has totally changed how people look at cartooning and comic strips," Mruz says, in an awestruck tone. "He's a giant," he pauses, "on whose shoulders others are going to stand. The word hero isn't big enough for him."

With his simple drawing style, Schulz dramatically influenced the comics, creating a strip in which the stories weren't overshadowed by the art, says Ted Rall, a New York-based cartoonist. "It was always a dark little strip. It's a depressing strip. No one ever gets what they want," Rall muses. "But it still kicks the ass of everything on the comics page."

And out of those brooding, often fatalistic vignettes grew an uplifting philosophy, says M. Thomas Inge, professor of humanities at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Virginia. Ultimately, Schulz's legacy voices itself through his characters, his day-in-day-out comic strip over the decades, he says. Inge has interviewed Schulz many times and plans to release a book, Conversations With Charles Schulz, this fall. Especially now, as the world reflects on the celebrities of the century, Schulz has earned a special place among the philosophers and scientists who have shaped the past 100 years--luminaries like Darwin and Einstein, Freud and Marx, who expounded on the forces in society that press upon humans and mold their existence.

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