Peggy Keener: A philosopher for the people

Published 5:03 pm Friday, September 2, 2022

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Aristotle he was not. Neither was he Plato nor Socrates. And yet — known to us all — he was one of the finest philosophers of our time. Born right here in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Charles M. Schulz was every man’s hero. The man on the street needed neither a PhD nor a pilgrimage to Mecca in order to understand his wisdom.

Surely destiny had a plan for Charles, for two days after he was born (Nov. 26, 1922), his uncle named him “Sparky” after the horse in the Barney Google comic strip. Throughout his youth, Sparky loved the cartoons. He and his father shared a Sunday morning ritual of reading the funny papers together.

Charles was fascinated with Skippy, Mickey Mouse and Popeye and it was while reading those strips that he realized he wanted to be a cartoonist himself. This was cemented when at age 15, his drawing of Spike, the family dog, was published in Ripley’s Believe It Or Not newspaper. As a senior in high school – and with the encouragement of his mother – he completed a correspondence cartoon course.

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During the 1920s-1940s, comics were full page features. Later in the mid-20th century, a minimalist model was promoted where cartoonists were pushed to shrink their drawings to strip size. The number of pen strokes were also reduced and a kind of cerebral humor was added for an ever-increasingly educated audience. Schulz’s dry, intellectual and self-effacing humor was an instant fit.

But, then, two monumental events interrupted his career. The death of his mother at age 50 from cervical cancer and his induction into World War II. Though he was proud of his army achievements, this period of his life was haunted by the immeasurable loss of his mother and the stark realities of war.

In the fall of 1945, he returned home, taking up residence with his father in an apartment over his father’s barbershop. It was then that his passion for becoming a professional cartoonist returned. There his one-panel cartoons were sold to The Saturday Evening Post, as well as a three-year run of his weekly panel comic, Li’l Folks, in the local St. Paul Pioneer Press. These early published cartoons focused on precise drawings of precocious children with large heads who were wise beyond their years. Schulz was honing his skills for what would come later.

The first Peanuts strip appeared on October 2, 1950 in seven national newspapers. Never could Sparky have then conceived that his seemingly-simple four-panel cartoons would one day impact the world.

Over the years, the personalities of Schulz’s characters in Peanuts were fleshed out. Readers began an intimate understanding of Linus’ attachment to his Security Blanket, Charlie Brown’s heartache over the Little Red-Haired Girl, Schroeder’s devotion to Beethoven, Peppermint Patty’s prowess in sports along with her failure in the classroom, and Lucy’s knowledge of … well … everything.

Snoopy’s popularity soared when he evolved from a four-legged animal to a two-legged, highly imaginative and equally compelling cartoon character. This seemingly simple change from four legs to two, allowed Schulz to take his story lines in increasingly new directions.

Wasn’t it the sensitive Snoopy, after all, who said, “I don’t have time to worry about who doesn’t like me. I’m too busy loving the people who love me.” And later he added, “I love the kind of hugs where you can physically feel the sadness leaving your body.”

Schulz’s understated genius lay in his ability to keep his characters fresh enough to attract new readers while keeping the old audience coming back for more. His wry, sarcastic, nostalgic, bittersweet, silly and melancholy humor were his secrets. To these he added occasional flights of fancy and a suspension of reality.

It was through Peanuts that Schulz spoke to our psyches: “Worrying won’t stop the bad stuff from happening. It just stops you from enjoying the good.” And this, “Perhaps they are not stars in the sky but rather openings where our loved ones shine down to let us know they are happy.”

When Schulz announced his retirement in December of 1999, the Peanuts comic strip was syndicated in over 2,600 newspapers worldwide. His book collections have been translated in over 25 languages. He was awarded his fellow cartoonists’ highest honors and even had a NASA spacecraft named after his characters. Foreign governments lauded him, and his work inspired a concert performance in Carnegie Hall.

Peanuts’ words will continue to be relevant down through the ages: “The less you respond to rude, critical, argumentative people, the more peaceful your life will become.” “The smile on my face doesn’t mean my life is perfect. It means I appreciate what I have and what I have been blessed with. I choose to be happy.”

Peanut’s wisdom about friendship is as clear as the ring of a crystal bell: “As we grow up, we realize it is less important to have lots of friends and more important to have real ones.” This is what he meant: “A friend is someone who says nice things about you when you aren’t around.”

Now when he is no longer around, I am saying nice things about Charles Schulz. Many of us would agree that we need him back in our lives. The times we are now in are in dire need of his insight and kindness. We miss him and agree with what he said: “There are moments in life when you miss someone so much that you just want to pick them from your dreams and hug them for real.”

How much more simplistic could his philosophy be? His trimmed back, soft spoken truths spoke volumes, especially when he reminded us that: “All you need is love. But a little chocolate now and then doesn’t hurt.” Yes, Charles Schulz was our friend. He will always be our friend.