Cartoonist Brooks returns to Andalusia

Published 12:00 am Monday, March 3, 2003

A young boy sits on the ground on Dunson Street, drawing cowboys and Indians in the sidewalk. Another boy, a few years older, looks over and shakes his head.

"Charles, you're gonna have to give up drawing when you start school," the older boy warns. "You won't have time for that anymore."

Decades later, the second boy is gone, a fatality of World War II. The first boy, Charles Brooks, never stopped drawing. In fact, he made a living at it, becoming one of the nation's premier political cartoonists, his work appearing first in the Birmingham News, then again in such publications as the New York Times, Time Magazine, U.S. News and World Report, and the Washington Post after wire services picked them up.

"I love to draw," said Brooks, who was in Andalusia this week. He spoke both to the Covington Historical Society Thursday night and the Civitan Club Friday afternoon. "I started before I ever went to grade school. When I got to school, I drew in the margins of the books, any white space I could find."

While at AHS, he began his cartooning career at the Andalusia Echo, the school paper. Right away, he found that people respond strongly to images - especially those they don't agree with. Brooks told the Civitan Club that one of his earliest efforts was a picture - exaggerated in cartoon form - of a tackle made by the football team. He said that one of the coaches reprimanded him for the rendering, since it looked from his drawing as though the tackle had been illegal.

Brooks regaled both groups with detailed stories of his career, which touched the lives of many famous and powerful people, perhaps even changing them in some cases.

One cartoon about the dangers of holiday travel showed two scenes - the top one of the three wise men making their calm and quiet way to Bethlehem with the tagline "Then" Bethlehem. The bottom frame was a violent scene of two cars in a head-on collision and was tagged "Today" Mayhem.

"We got a call from the Texas State troopers," said Brooks. "They wanted our permission to use that cartoon for a safety campaign. They would stop the cars at checkpoints and just hand them a copy of that cartoon."

According to Brooks, the head of the state troopers called him later and said that there were 22 fewer deaths on the highways that holiday season.

"By no means can I take credit for those 22 lives," said Brooks, "But if I had to do something with saving one, just one, that's something I can take pride in."

Negative responses to some of his cartoons were more common, including from the irate Birmingham woman who called him a "damn Yankee" when his cartoon criticized the closing of the city's parks to keep from having to open them to blacks as well as whites. Brooks politely informed the woman that he was from Andalusia, and people down here considered people way up in Birmingham to be damn Yankees.

Another disgruntled response was more threatening, when three burly men arrived at the paper to protest his anti-KKK cartoon, but despite their blustering and threats, no serious problem evolved from it.

Often, the subjects of his work would call and request the original - including President Ronald Reagan, who wanted it hand-delivered to the White house by the artist himself who was more than happy to oblige. Brooks still has the photograph of the event, along with the one portraying him with Richard Nixon.

Brooks, before showing any of his own works, passed around old copies of the school reading magazine "Weekly Reader" from the late 1960s. On the cover, unnamed, is Brooks, several other political cartoonists, and Richard Nixon, standing around samples of their caricatures of the president.

"I think I'm more proud of that than anything," Brooks told his listeners. "If you had told me I would be on the cover of Weekly Reader, I'd have never believed it."

He said two of his subjects who never asked for an original were Paul "Bear" Bryant and George Wallace. His Bryant cartoons have been gathered by an Alabama doctor, who plans to leave them to the Bear Bryant Museum.

Brooks' work has led him to meet presidents, prime ministers, a princess, and scores of other celebrities, from movie stars to baseball greats like Roger Maris.

Until a few years ago, Brooks spoke about his experiences frequently, traveling with his wife Virginia, who, he claims, he "won" by losing a coin toss. He told the Civitan Club that he had planned to go hear Wendell Wilkie make a campaign speech when a friend tried to persuade him to go to a church social instead. Irritated at his friend's persistence, Brooks finally told him to flip a coin - if he lost, he would go to the church function. He lost the coin toss and met the young lady who would become his wife.

He was attending the art institute in Chicago at the time, after one year spent at Birmingham Southern.

Brooks also told the Covington Historical Society of his time spent in the armed services, when he saw action both on the beaches at D-day and at the Battle of the Bulge, and watched Eisenhower and Churchill as they disembarked at Normandy after the battle was over.

He would visit Europe again, many years, later, this time with his wife by his side, as they were presented to Princess Margaret.

Despite world travel and hobnobbing with the likes of J. Edgar Hoover, Ronald Reagan and Princess Margaret, Brooks tries to make it back to visit as often as possible.

"Andalusia will always be home," he said.