Saturday, June 30, 2007

Last-ever interview with Charles Schulz

Priorities Magazine

Just prior to his death and in failing health, Charles Schulz still wasn't much interested in talking about his past. The creator and only artist and writer of the world-famous Peanuts cartoon strip believed he had too much to do. First and foremost, Schulz had planned on getting healthy so he could enjoy his retirement with his family and friends.

"I recently had a stroke," Schulz said in his California home during one of his last-ever interviews. "I'm working hard every day to get my health back, but it's a long battle."

A battle he eventually succumbed to on Saturday, February 12th. It was in his home, with his family around him, when Schulz peacefully kissed this world goodbye. And, almost as if on his own terms, as word spread of his passing, newspapers worked to find a spot for the news just as they prepared to feature the last-ever Peanuts cartoon.

One of Schulz's colleagues believes that his work ethic and love of his characters and audience is what the Peanuts artist will always be remembered for.

"It's an amazing feat what Charles did," Bil Keane, artist and creator of the Family Circus cartoon said. "I can't think of any other cartoonist who has been 100 percent responsible for his work over such a long period of time."

Along with a professional relationship, Keane and Schulz created a bond that went beyond the ink and pages of comic strips.

"I was personal friends with Charles for years," said Keane. "He was one of the most genuine people I have ever known."

While his health had slowed him down in the months prior to his death, Schulz never lost his vigor and enthusiasm for Peanuts. In January, Schulz finished his latest Peanuts creation, another prize for the world to enjoy.

"Production on Pied Piper Charlie Brown has just wrapped up," Schulz said. "I think it's one of our best works."

That was quite a statement from the man responsible for the most widely recognized comic strip characters in history. Since its debut soon after his return from World War II, Peanuts has appeared in newspapers in 75 countries worldwide. On a daily basis, its work could always be traced back to Schulz. And when Connie Boucher, a housewife from San Francisco, received Schulz's okay to try her hand at merchandising the Peanuts characters, one member of the gang, a little dog called Snoopy became a household name. But after some 50 years, Schulz began preparation to say goodbye to the Peanuts comic strip for the last time.

"I certainly enjoyed doing Peanuts," Schulz said, "but it's time to move on."

Schulz's decision to cease the publishing of the comic strip was easy because, he said, it really wasn't his decision in the first place. Schulz's five children and two stepchildren made a pact with one another years ago that when their father could no longer create Peanuts, the comic strip would end.

"They came to me a long time ago and said no one should ever do Peanuts except me," Schulz said. "I was somewhat surprised by how strongly they felt about their decision."

Family was always an important aspect of Charles Schulz. Born November 26, 1922, to Carl and Dena Schulz of St. Paul, Minnesota, Charles learned at an early age what family devotion was all about. His father, who owned a barber shop during the Great Depression, not only found a means to take care of his own family, but also found funds to offer work to others. He did so at a time when work and cash were at an all-time low in this country.

Also during the Depression, his father managed to scrape together enough cash to finance young Charles' dreams of becoming an artist. Charles attended the Art Instructions School during that time, but the shy and nervous boy managed just a C+ in his first class.

Not deterred, however, Charles forged ahead through his classes, improving day by day and week by week. At the same time, the Schulz family was forced to sell their home and take residence up in an apartment above a drug store. Schulz' mother's diagnosis with cancer necessitated the move. Each day the pharmacist would dispense pain medication to ease the struggles of her illness. For the next several years, however, Charles was forced to watch his mother deteriorate until she passed away.

"That was a terrible time in our lives," Schulz said. "She was just so sick. It was so awful." Within days of being drafted into service to fight in World War II, Schulz' mother lost her valiant battle with cancer. Amazingly, it was while serving in the military that Schulz began to hone his skills as a cartoonist.

"I had some good friends in the service," said Schulz. "So when they saw I could do cartoons, they began asking me to draw silly little cartoons on the envelopes of their letters."

One dear friend, known now as just Sergeant Hegameyer, often asked Schulz to decorate his letters before he shipped them off to the states to his bride. While Schulz was decorating letters for others, he received daily correspondence from his recently widowed father.

Wartime was certainly not all about cartoons, though. Schulz earned the reputation as a hard-nosed military man and soon became a staff sergeant and the leader of a machine-gun squad.
"The time in the service was a strange time," Schulz said. "I learned a lot about myself and became more confident in my work and became more focused on my goals."

"I always knew I was going to be an artist, but the time in the war gave me that extra push."
Schulz returned home and landed two jobs, one as a writer for a comic strip and one as an art teacher at the school he had attended years earlier. It was during that time he met a good man named Charlie Brown. Schulz worked with Brown and developed a strong friendship with him. He also came to know a red-headed young woman who broke his heart. Her persona would follow in the form of a character in Peanuts.

"Once I started Peanuts, I knew that's what I would do for the rest of my life," said Schulz. "I had a lot of confidence in my work at that point of my life, and I can't think of anything else I ever wanted to do."

"Some people want to be doctors, others lawyers," Schulz said. "For me, I always wanted to be an artist and was driven to do so."

Schulz also encouraged his children to seek happiness in their careers. His youngest daughter, Jill Transki, told People magazine after her father's death, "He always instilled in us how essential it is to enjoy the process of life, regarding every moment and every act as having some importance."

He also felt keeping control of Peanuts was important. In fact, when publishers requested Peanuts focus less on Snoopy, Schulz quietly said no, and continued in the direction he felt the strip should go.

"I always felt the best way to keep the dream of Peanuts alive was by keeping that kind of control of the comic strip."

And while he may never again sign his name to a Peanuts comic strip, Schulz clearly grew to understand his place in history and American culture and remained amazed by the attention. When he announced his retirement, the man they call Sparky was deluged with well wishes. And when it was revealed he was sick, the cards and letters only increased.
What can I possibly say about this? First, to even interview Charles Schulz was an honor. To conduct the last interview he ever granted prior to his death is humbling. I don't know anyone who hasn't ready the Peanuts cartoons. He was a true gentleman who made the world a better place.

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