Charles G. Werner · 2011

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Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist Charles G. Werner was a student of the Bible, mythology and Shakespeare.

“Knowledge of these three is essential for framing ideas, for analogies to current situations which may be portrayed in cartoons,” he once said. He also believed that cartooning should be poignant and simple to be effective.

“A cartoon must be based on fact,” said, Werner, who died in 1997. “It must be direct and critical, using satire and ridicule as a base. Cartoons of approbation are rarely, if ever, successful.”

Although he had no formal art training, Werner did attend the Chicago Art Institute to see what went on at an art school and eventually became an instructor there.

Born in 1909 in Marshfield, Wis., Werner began his journalism career in 1930 as an artist, photographer and reporter at the Springfield News-Leader in Missouri. He remained there until 1935, when he joined the staff of The Daily Oklahoman, becoming editorial cartoonist there in 1937.

While at The Oklahoman in Oklahoma City, Werner was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1939. At that time he was 29 years old, becoming the youngest person to win the coveted prize for editorial cartoons. The prize was the first of many prestigious honors bestowed on him.

Werner won his Pulitzer for a cartoon published in 1938. The cartoon was a comment on the agreement made at Munich that transferred Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland to Adolf Hitler’s Germany. The cartoon was simple and forceful. It showed a gravestone marked “Czechoslovakia /1919–1938” and on which was placed the Nobel Peace Prize. The cartoon was a bitter comment on the infamous treaty.

After the news of his receiving the prize spread, Werner became a local celebrity. Still not highly paid, he supplemented his income by teaching cartooning at a local public school.

Werner moved to Chicago in 1941, where he became chief editorial cartoonist for The Chicago Sun. His cartoons were well received nationally. While at The Sun, he became president of the Chicago Headliners Club.

After disagreeing with the newspaper’s editorial policy, he moved to The Indianapolis Star in 1947, the same year The Sun went bankrupt. Werner stayed at The Star as editorial cartoonist until retiring in 1994.

Near his easel at The Star were copies of The Bible, Mother Goose, Bartlett’s Quotations, a thesaurus, the Guinness Book of Records and the complete works of Shakespeare.

Most of Werner’s cartoons measured 11 1/4 by 13 3/4 inches. He drew his cartoons on coquille board with ink and graphite.

The late John H. Lyst, longtime editor of The Star, praised Werner’s work in an editorial on his passing. Lyst wrote that Werner “certainly made a major contribution to The Star and to the national reputation of its crusading editorial pages, especially in the first three decades after World II. In those years many of his cartoons appeared on Page One.

“He was a cartoonist’s cartoonist, quick, powerful and to the point. His drawing could trigger a belly laugh or rip at your heart. The best cartoons, he said, are those you can understand at a glance.

“Chuck Werner was simply a great cartoonist. You may not have always agreed with him but he certainly got your attention.”

Lyst also wrote that Werner was widely respected and often sought out by younger artists for advice.

His work has been displayed around the country and reproduced in numerous school textbooks and historical collections.

More than 100 of Werner’s cartoons and correspondence from presidents and others are in the Special Collections Research Center at New York’s Syracuse University.

The late Eugene S. Pulliam, The Star’s publisher, also praised Werner. He noted that both Werner and The Star were “undeniably and deservedly proud of the cartoons he produced day after day. They were an informed, sometimes caustic, but accurate commentary on his world. Few have done it so well.”

Werner’s cartoons ranged widely, from national and international affairs to state and city politics. He was deeply interested in community affairs. He deliberately focused 40 percent of his work on local matters and repeatedly declined offers of syndication because such distribution would have forced him to devote more attention to national and world issues.

But Werner lampooned presidents, popes and other people in high places. Among them were former presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, Lyndon B. Johnson and Gerald R. Ford.

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Courtesy Indianapolis Star
Charles G. Werner produced thousands of cartoons that represented the times of the 20th century.
Even though Werner’s cartoons were critical of these men, they admired his work. President Johnson requested 14 original works by Werner to be placed with his papers for permanent preservation.

The U.S. State Department circulated some of Werner’s cartoons throughout the world so they could be published in overseas newspapers. Encyclopedia Britannica used his cartoons as illustrations for political articles.

During his long career, Werner produced thousands of cartoons that provided an enduring graphic history of 20th century America, according to American Biography Online.

While Werner was at The Star, numerous other honors were conferred on him, including awards from the National Service Clubs, the Society of Professional Journalists and the National Foundation for Highway Safety.

He also received the Dave Roberts Award for outstanding work in wildlife conservation in Indiana, Ohio and Kentucky. Although an avid hunter, Werner championed wildlife conservation.

Werner also received seven Freedom Foundation awards. His most cherished honor, however, came in 1951 when he received an award from the National Headliners Club for outstanding editorial cartoons.

By Ernest A. Wilkinson, State Editor, The Indianapolis Star (retired)

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