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Pen-and-ink prophet

Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif.

Tall, rangy, voice booming, Paul Conrad is on the altar at St. John Fisher Church. He’s not a priest or liturgical minister, but a sculptor -- and a three-time Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist. His scalpel-sharp pen has gleefully or disgustedly dissected the pomposities of American presidents and public figures for five decades. And his compassion has caught the nation’s mood in moments of tragedy.

Right now he’s tugging at drapes to help the photographer ensure there’s sufficient light to make a picture of his “Risen Christ.” It is a metal corpus situated ahead of the cross behind it and lit so the cross and corpus are repeated in triplicate as shadows.

The topic being discussed on the busy altar is not art or cartooning but the declaration of a 19th-century Anglican cleric. That cleric contended that God wanted to be witnessed to, not praised, because “no gentleman likes to be praised to his face.”

“Damn right,” said the 77-year-old Conrad. “Remove the words of praise and a good editor could cut some prayers and hymns by 50 percent.” Meanwhile, suffering in silent prayer at the rear of the church, were two men praying in the screened-off chapel where the Blessed Sacrament was exposed.

Apologies were made, and the conversation upfront continued in booming whispers as the photographer did her work.

Conrad is not out of place on an altar -- his admirers see him as an Old Testament prophet. He denounces injustice, smugness and deception. He trounces his political enemies simply by removing their outer shells in full view of the public. But Conrad never flounces off -- he stays to face the uproar, the rancor and the occasional libel suits he creates.

“If Jeremiah had drawn, he would have drawn like Conrad,” writes cartoonist Doug Marlette, introducing a newly published selection of Conrad cartoons that date back to the 1970s. “Conrad is Isaiah with a Newton and Windsor brush. Amos with a Speedball pen.”

Though Conrad is now semi-retired from the Los Angeles Times, the paper still regularly carries his work. His output of four cartoons a week is syndicated. His cartoons done in the wake of the Sept. 11 attack on New York and Washington reveal his nib has lost none of its edge, nor its capacity for empathy. (His “Band of Brothers” drawing of firemen at the World Trade Center has been picked up by fire departments nationwide as a symbol for T-shirts and caps.)

What shapes a pen-and-ink prophet?

Conrad, a Des Moines, Iowa-born and -reared cradle Catholic, realized his gifts in the boys’ bathroom at St. Augustine’s elementary school.

“Some of the older boys went in for what was later called graffiti,” said Conrad, “and when I was about 8, I illustrated someone else’s restroom wall editorial comment. As a result, I learned that one picture is worth a thousand words, and that when the establishment gets mad, it goes after the cartoonist, not the editorial writers.”

He’d also learned he could draw better cartoons than any other kid in St. Augustine’s.

Of his Catholicism he says that his church, his faith, “has given me a base -- but I can’t say that I think that much of the base at this point. There’s a number of things I can’t go along with. Sitting on the priests and not letting them marry. Treating the nuns like chattel. Worrying too much about baptizing the wrong people, especially babies. Dumbest thing I ever heard. I just don’t understand that. This is the type of church Christ had in mind?

“Deep down I’m still a Catholic,” he said. When the deadline for his cartoon approaches and it’s a day when his ideas are few, he lowers his head and says a “Hail Mary,” and when he lifts it back up, the idea is there.

“Never fails,” he said.

Nonetheless, Conrad remains contrarian.

“When I did that crucifix” -- one of two sculptures he’s done for St. John Fisher Church -- “the only thing I said was I wasn’t going to have Christ on the cross. Seemed to me silly. Here’s people worshiping and they’ve got a Christ up there deader than hell. This Christ is off the cross -- thank God,” said Conrad. “That way the sculpture points out the possibilities. He’s risen.”

Conrad has built a career of pointing out the possibilities.

After he and his twin brother, Jim (“I’m the sweet-tempered one,” said Conrad), graduated from Roosevelt High School, Conrad went to Valdez, Alaska, on a construction job. The Depression hadn’t ebbed, and employment was not abundant.

“There was only one piano in Valdez,” said Conrad, “at Big Red’s whorehouse, so that’s where I went to play it.” Among his talents, he is an accomplished musician.

But frontier life wasn’t for him. Eight months later he was back in the lower 48, drafted into the Army Corps of Engineers and sent to the South Pacific. “I went through basic training three times until I finally got it right,” he said.

Said his wife, Kay, “people sometimes criticize Con for his military cartoons. They say, ‘You so-and-so, you were never in the military.’ He was. He was in the invasions of Guam and Okinawa. Trouble is he’s a bleeding-heart patriot,” she said, whose critics sometimes confuse his attacks on military jingoism with an attack on the military.

After their discharge, he and Jim went to the University of Iowa. Within 18 months he was the cartoonist for the university’s Daily Iowan. The newspaper competed against the other Iowa City dailies for circulation.

“The editor recruited me,” said Conrad. “I tell you, I was fascinated. Jim and I were majoring in art, and I didn’t think much of it til I started cartooning. Jim was playing tenor sax in one band and I was playing string bass in another. When it was time to graduate, the registrar told me I didn’t have enough grade points to graduate.

“ ‘You’ve got a 1.79, and you need 1.8,’ she said. And I said, ‘Well Jim’s got a 3.5. Give me a 1/100th out of his.’ She said they didn’t operate that way.” Conrad told her it would just break his parents’ hearts to have one twin graduate and not the other. “I told ’em I had a job lined up at the Denver Post and didn’t care, but my mother and father would be heartbroken. And off I went. The office called the next day and told me to pick up my cap and gown.”

One of Conrad’s professors had urged him to send samples of his work to Denver Post editor Palmer Hoy. Hoy hired him. That was in 1950. The newspaper was politically independent. He was at the Post until 1964 when he left for the Los Angeles Times.

“I’d been through L.A. and when they contacted me I told them, ‘That newspaper is a put-on.’ But I went out to see them. I was really impressed with Nick Williams [the editor] and Otis Chandler [publisher]. I came home and said to Kay, ‘We’re moving to California.’ Best damn move I ever made.”

It was at the Post that he’d met Kay. “She was working in the Women’s Department,” he said. “On the first real date I took her to the top of the Park Hotel. I even danced. I hate to dance. That was in ’50.”

They were wed in 1954 and have four children, two sons and two daughters.

At the Times, said Conrad, “Nick didn’t really like my work, way too liberal for him. But Otis did. Hell, it was marvelous. You had [President Ronald] Reagan just starting with all that bullshit that got him eight years as governor. And then [President Richard] Nixon,” he added with relish.

“I only met him once. I was the only cartoonist to make his Enemies List.” (Nixon compiled a file of his major political enemies.)

The Pulitzer Prize-winner has always had remarkable freedom for his cartoon work. In the early years he ran his stuff by an editorial writer named Bob Hansen. “Learned more about newspapering from Bob than anybody because he could get right to the gut of it. He had Hodgkin’s disease. I used to stop at his place and dress him in the morning, get him down to work. Died when he was 33, which was damn close to my age. Just about broke my heart. One of the greatest guys I’ve ever known.”

During his nearly 40 years cartooning for the Times, Conrad has had a couple of major libel suits. One of the offending cartoons speared Los Angeles’ Mayor Sam Yorty, the other Fred Hartley, head of Union Oil. Neither suit was successful. Conrad had depicted Yorty in a straightjacket after the mayor failed to get a Washington appointment. Hartley was shipping easily refined Union light crude oil from Prudhoe Bay in Alaska to Indonesia at a time California was having an energy crisis. Conrad drew a Christmas tree with the lights unlit, and a note by it, “Merry Christmas from Fred Heartless.”

After the libel suit fizzled out, the Conrads and the Hartleys became friends.

The cartoonist, an avid golfer who still plays a 93 game when at his best, began sculpting in the 1980s. He likes to do 20-inch tall statuettes, of presidents, political and historical figures -- Martin Luther King, Princess Diana, Tiger Woods. Currently he’s working on one of Jim Murray, the late Times sports writer. He regularly donates sculptures as fundraisers for favorite scholarship projects. His bust of Otis Chandler is displayed in the Los Angeles Times headquarters’ entrance. His first religious sculpture, in steel, hangs on the exterior of Marymount Palos Verdes College, a junior college here.

He has some huge outdoor sculptures, including his colossal anti-nuclear “Chain Reaction” in Santa Monica.

Americans, he said, have now created their own “major monument to where this country is” domestically: the SUV. “It’s a horror. It’s a monument to excess. And they don’t seem to give a damn about the environment. And too-goddamned big. I drive a 300 ZX. I can see up under their fenders. They can’t even see me.”

In Manhattan on Sept. 11, America lost two very different monuments: the twin towers. Conrad’s cartoons, included on this page [not posted], say how he feels about that.

Arthur Jones, NCR editor at large, resides in Valencia, Calif. His e-mail is ajones96@aol.com

National Catholic Reporter, October 26, 2001