Saturday, July 5, 2008

Farewell to an Old Friend

illustration copyright J.Pittman, 2008

The headlines in newspapers across the country today record the passing of an old friend of mine, Jesse Helms. The Senator from NC was either loved or hated by his political colleagues--there was no in-between. But one thing everyone could say was you knew where he stood on issues, and he didn't waffle like so many today. His brand of unyielding conservatism might have been scary to some, and certainly if left unchecked might be just as scary as unchecked liberalism. But it was a welcome and needed balance in the atmosphere of the 70's where family values got shoved aside by the "me" generation.

But this is a tribute to a man who meant a lot to me in a very difficult time of my career. It was around 1994-95, and the illustration industry had taken a nosedive. A lot of my colleagues who could not hang on through the drought were forced into other lines of work. Through no fault of our own, the telephone just stopped ringing for months and months. I was coming to the end of my ability to weather the storm as well.

I happened to see Sen. Helms on an evening news broadcast one night. As Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he was being interviewed on an important world issue. I could see a faded newspaper cartoon framed in the background of his office. It was an old illustration of mine where I had drawn him in the familiar "American Gothic" pose from Grant Wood's famous painting. I figured if he cared enough to frame a yellowed newspaper clipping, I'd send him the autographed original with a personal note inscribed. Besides, if my career was going down the tubes, I might as well give away some art to someone who appreciated it.

One particular morning, a few days later, as I was trying to make some tough decisions, I had spent some time reflecting in my regular morning devotion period with an inspirational verse from Psalm 143:8-- "Cause me to hear Your lovingkindness in the morning, for in You do I trust; cause me to know the way in which I should walk, for I lift up my soul to You." Within an hour, my phone rang! Was God opening His hand and sending a client my way?

I answered the phone and heard a female secretary's voice, "Is this Mr. Pittman, the cartoonist?,"
"Yes it is," I responded, expecting a request for a quote on a project.
"Hold on please. Senator Helms would like to speak to you."

Now, I'm thinking, "Oh sure, somebody's about to play a prank on me."
Then comes this voice on the line which I had heard many times on television editorials when I was a child.
"Hello, Jack, this is Jesse... Jesse Helms."

I think it was because I was caught so off-guard that all protocol to correctly address one of the most powerful and influential politicians of the time went out the window. And I responded, "Jesse! How are you?"

"Very well, thank you," he replied. "What I'm calling about is the cartoon you sent me. I really want to thank you for your generosity as that was a favorite of mine."

I told him I had seen a copy of it behind him during a news conference and thought he would like to have the original.

He went on, "Not only am I going to enjoy it, but it is going to be included in the archives of the Jesse Helms Foundation after I retire, so it will be an historic document for others to see in years to come." Then he added, "I do appreciate your kindness, but what I especially appreciate is the note you added to it."

I had inscribed something to the effect of "In appreciation for your courageous stand to help preserve traditional family values and our American way of life. Best regards, Jack."

Then we talked a bit of how we both had enjoyed a background in newspaper journalism with the same publication, albeit in different generations, and the challenges that went along with the field. He proceeded to invite me to his office in Washington for lunch, "show me around," and said if there was anything he could ever do for me to let him know. Then he finished our conversation with a phrase I'm sure countless politicians utter, but given my Bible verse that morning, one which had special meaning to me, "God bless you, Jack."

After reflecting a few days, I was teaching an adult Bible study at my church and shared the episode with my class. "I had come to the conclusion," I told them, "that the phone call was the demonstration of the lovingkindness and encouragement from God that morning which Psalm 143:8 had communicated to me. Why, it was almost as if God Himself had tapped me on the shoulder and said, 'Don't worry. Everything's under control. I'm here and this is a reminder that I care.'"

To which one of my class members, an ardent critic of Sen. Helms replied, "I'm sure Jesse felt the same way!" Knowing his sense of humor toward his political enemies, I can't help but think he's having a laugh about that, too.

Postscript: Within a week of that call, my phone started ringing with more regularity again, I got what was at that time the largest assignment I'd ever received from a Park Avenue ad agency for Procter & Gamble, and also received what was to become the first of many Reuben Award nominations for Best in Advertising Illustration from the National Cartoonists Society.

Regardless of what many critics have to say against Jesse Helms for his political philosophy, he was used by God to offer the encouragement I needed that day, to persevere in my career, and trust I was going in the direction I needed to.

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