So, I was standing in a line at a South Side post office when I got into a conversation with an older man who told me that he was there to buy a new stamp featuring his "hero," Bill Mauldin.
"Did you ever hear of him?" the man said. "He was …"
I interrupted him because I had heard of Mauldin and indeed knew him. For those of us of a certain newspapering generation, Mauldin was, and remains, a god.
He came crashing into my life the day after Nov. 22, 1963.
Mauldin had been at lunch that day when he heard the news from Dallas that John Kennedy had been shot dead. He came back to his tiny cubicle at the Sun-Times and found a bottle of Jack Daniel's on his desk. He took what he later described as a "big snort" and started to draw what is arguably the greatest newspaper cartoon in history.
It took up the entire back page of the next day's paper, the drawing of the statue of Abraham Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial, his head in his hands, weeping.
The man who created it, I would later learn, was born in New Mexico in 1921, dropped out of high school and came here to attend the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts. He entered the Army in 1940, and he began to draw cartoons for Stars and Stripes newspaper.
It was there he created Willie and Joe, an endearing pair on infantrymen once described as "unshaven, listless, dull-eyed, cynical dogfaces who spent the war fighting the Germans, trying to keep dry and warm and flirting with insubordination."
They made him famous — he won a Pulitzer Prize for these drawings when he was 23. He won his second in 1959, a year after becoming the editorial cartoonist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. In 1962, he came back to Chicago to work for the Sun-Times, where he would stay for 30 years, his work syndicated to hundreds of other papers.
His final years were not good years, as he was beset with all sorts of physical and mental ills, eventually residing in a California nursing home and wasting away. But a newspaper columnist there wrote about his plight, and the word spread.
The World War II vets who had been so entertained by his Willie and Joe, so comforted by these scraggily soldiers, started to show up in large numbers. Themselves no longer fit and young, they wanted to connect to Maudlin and, in so doing, touch their own past. Before the cartoonist died in 2003 at 81, he had received more than 10,000 cards and letters.
Todd DePastino wrote a wonderful biography in 2007, "Bill Mauldin: A Life Up Front," and wrote the introduction to the amazing and beautiful collection of more than 600 of his wartime cartoons published last year, "Willie & Joe: The WW II Years."
And now there is the first-class stamp from the U.S. Postal Service. They are, as you can see, quite handsome, putting Mauldin alongside his dogface pals forever.
"Really nice," said the old man at the post office. "Really nice."
I bought a couple of sheets and have already used most of the stamps. I will buy some more after the rest have gone their away.
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