The Journal Gazette
Sunday, May 08, 2022 1:00 am

Sack full of wit

TIM HARMON | The Journal Gazette

When Steve Sack, the editorial cartoonist for The Minneapolis Star Tribune, announced his retirement last week, his fans in the Twin Cities thanked him for four decades of great work.

But readers of The Journal Gazette's editorial pages have known him even longer.

In fact, Steve got his professional start in Fort Wayne in 1978. He worked here for almost three years before the Star Tribune lured him back to the city where he was born. He's worked in Minneapolis ever since – 42 years. The Journal Gazette and other newspapers around the country continued to run his work through a syndication service.

Starting my first editorial-writing job, it was my good fortune to share a cubbyhole off the main Journal Gazette newsroom with Steve and illustrator Larry Gwaltney. I soon learned that a cartoonist's creative process involved a lot more than blocking out a funny panel. Steve had to draw sketch after sketch to clear his mind before the next day's cartoon came into focus for him. Larry, also a talented artist, often joined in, and I became the test audience.

Our little office often became a vortex of laughter as the three of us shared drafts of cartoon ideas that were achingly funny but mostly unpublishable for one reason or another.

A farewell column by the editorial page editor of The Star Tribune revealed Sack retained the seemingly chaotic cartoon-birthing process he developed here.

Wrote Scott Gillespie: “ 'Basically, my job description is to read the paper, crack a joke, draw a picture and turn it in,' he once said. That's far from the whole story. Steve's cartoons were the product of extensive reading, conversations with colleagues, and some of the most creative doodling ever done around a conference table or in a cubicle as he weighed options for the next day's cartoon.”

“I loved my time in Fort Wayne,” Sack recalled a few days ago. “I had worked for my college newspaper, but this was the first time I had to produce a cartoon every day. The editors were supportive and the professional standards were high. Most of us on the staff were young and got along well. And the community was great – nice people, fun places to hang out.”

Gregg Bender, a longtime designer and illustrator who's now drawing editorial cartoons for The Journal Gazette, was a college student when Sack took time to give him advice and encouragement.

“His work, his drawing style and approach were much different than contemporaries at the time and seemed to always be on target, funny and insightful,” Bender recalled. “But what struck me most was that he was just an ordinary, nice guy, grateful he could make a career out of something he loved doing. He added, with a laugh, there really wasn't anything else he was good at.

“I knew from that moment I wanted to be part of that club.”

Steve was preceded at The Journal Gazette by two other notable cartoonists. Bob Englehart, who was on staff during the mid-'70s, worked at several larger papers and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize; he has retired from the Hartford Courant but is still freelancing. Dan Lynch, who succeeded Englehart, became the cartoonist for the Kansas City Star. After Sack moved on to Minneapolis, Lynch returned and was the JG cartoonist for many years. He died in 2014.

Long considered one of the nation's best newspaper cartoonists, Sack won the Pulitzer in 2013. He had been a finalist for the prize, the highest honor in American journalism, three times before.

Recovering from hand surgery this spring, the 68-year-old Sack said he isn't planning to stop drawing and creating – but he's not sure what form his post-newspaper work will take. Here are just a few cartoons from his 45-year editorial cartooning career.

Tim Harmon is a retired editorial writer for The Journal Gazette. 

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