Friday, January 3, 2014

Greenwich Writer and Cartoonist

What better way to start the new year than with a blog post about a Greenwich resident who has made a career of cartooning and writing? That would be none other than Jerry Dumas, currently a columnist for Greenwich Time and a cartoonist, whose popular strip, “Sam and Silo,” is distributed by King Features Syndicate. But before Greenwich, before his illustrious career, he was—as he told our Oral History Project interviewer—a kid growing up in Detroit, Michigan.
January 3rd, 2014, "Sam and Silo"
Writer, cartoonist, Jerry Dumas

And “a good childhood,” it was, as Dumas says, surrounded by loving parents and an interesting extended family, going back on the Dumas side to the early 1500’s in Canada. On his mother’s side, his grandfather emigrated from Germany and became a Lutheran pastor, riding the circuit in his horse and buggy among three churches in the Ontario countryside. He wrote his Sunday sermons at the same desk his grandson uses today. All of this, as Dumas explains, has been recorded in his childhood memoir, An Afternoon in Waterloo Park.  

Dumas’ own mother and father met in Detroit. One night in 1924, his father, who was a fireman and in training to become a prizefighter, was seriously injured in a hit-and-run accident. Sadly, that event ended his career as a fire fighter and his hopes for the ring, but his future bride (and Jerry Dumas’ mother) was his nurse. Their son was born in 1930.

Dumas’ own career path was set in those early days in Detroit. After high school, while he was working in a grocery story, he became fascinated by the cartoons he saw in the magazines of the day. He particularly admired the work of John Cullen Murphy, a cartoonist for Liberty. Little did he know then, that Murphy, who lived in Cos Cob, would become one of his closest friends for over fifty years. But Dumas’ life has been a succession of life-altering coincidences.

In 1947 or ’48, as Dumas tells it, he came across a new cartoonist in the Saturday Evening Post and was instantly drawn to his work. He began to learn from this new talent, to copy his style. Then came the Korean War and Dumas signed up. He was shipped to Luke Air Fore Base outside Phoenix, Arizona. There he first saw Beetle Bailey, by none other than Mort Walker, the cartoonist he so admired. At the same time Dumas was now drawing cartoons for Air Force Times, using much of what he had learned from Walker’s style.

  From there, with the help of the G.I. Bill, Dumas enrolled in Arizona State, and during his stay there, he began “inking” a comic strip for Walt Ditzen—for fifty dollars a week—his first job getting paid in the field that would become his passion and his life’s work. Soon after, he met Jay Roberge, from Stratford Connecticut, who was working on the comic strip, Brenda Starr. Little did Dumas know at the time that this relationship would play such a critical role in his life.

Over time, however, Dumas lost track of Roberge, learning only that he had moved back East. After a year or two, Dumas decided, rather quickly, it seems, that he wanted to live in New York City. He then read an article on Mort Walker who was still having great success with Beetle Baily. From the article Dumas learned that Walker lived in a white colonial in the Belle Haven section of Greenwich—and that his assistant was Jay Roberge.

After the two reunited, Dumas learned that Roberge was preparing to start his own strip and that Walker would soon need someone to replace him. And that replacement turned out to be Dumas. Instead of moving to New York, Dumas was on his way to a lifetime in Greenwich. But first there was the apartment in Port Chester, a big airy place where he could write the Beetle Bailey gags and draw cartoons for The Saturday Evening Post. Eventually, though, he moved to Greenwich, in an apartment on Greenwich Avenue, across the street from Mead’s stationary store.

So far so good for Jerry Dumas, but there’s a very important part of his story that has been left out until now: how he came to meet, fall in love with, and marry the love of his life.

It just so happened that while he was in Arizona, he had met and dated a lovely woman with high cheek bones and warm brown eyes whose name was Gail. They had gone out only a few times, but that was enough for him to announce to friends, “I just met the girl I’m going to marry.” When he moved to Port Chester, he sent her one letter with his new address, but he did not hear from her until the day before he was set to move to Greenwich Then, out of the blue, she called to say she was in the area. The life-altering coincidences continued—and a New York City courtship began, culminating in a Phoenix wedding in June of 1958. The happy couple would head back to Connecticut to take up residence for a time in that Greenwich Avenue apartment. Not long after, however, they both fell in love with a little brick house in Havemeyer where they started their family, but the family home for the long haul would be a larger one in Greenwich, on Crown Lane, on four acres.

Now with a wife and three growing boys, Dumas continued his work with Mort Walker and with his own cartoons, selling to the best magazines, including many to The New Yorker, the ultimate prize for any aspiring cartoonist.

These days, a still very busy Dumas can be found at his grandfather’s desk writing his column for Greenwich Time and his cartoons for “Sam and Silo,” to say nothing of attending to other interests, including his membership with a group called the “Thursdays” because they meet on Thursdays.  And, as Dumas describes them, to say this is a group of high-powered, witty, smart, creative types would be an understatement.
Jerry with his wife, Gail, their son, Tim, and granddaughter, Emilie

In fact, there are so many engaging anecdotes in this fascinating interview, to realize its true merits, you will have to read it in its entirety. And enjoy it, you will.

The interview, “Jerry Dumas: His Career in Cartooning and Writing,” is available through the Oral History Project, Greenwich Library, Greenwich, Connecticut.