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In The Press

Thomas International Center
October 2007


Ralph McInerny


Draw Me



Reading a recent life of Charles Schulz, the creator of Peanuts, I came upon the names of old friends. I began graduate studies in philosophy at the University of Minnesota, back in 1951, when, to steal from Muriel Spark, "everyone was poor, allowing for exceptions," I worked nights on a punch press. The people I met then were at least as interesting as those I met during the day on campus. There were many aspiring writers and artists among them. I was an oddity, a philosopher, and they invited me to Saturday night parties in a garret studio on Franklin Avenue. Recorded jazz, beer, clouds of tobacco smoke, and talk talk talk. It was wonderful. It was the closest I ever came to Bohemia, save for a sad interlude in Greenwich Village some years later. More memories.  Among the Minneapolis merrymakers was a man who had been in grade school with me, at St. Helena's. Jim Sasseville.

Even as a boy, Jim had been an accomplished artist, a natural, untaught, in class always drawing with a soft pencil in a pad with a huge 5 on the cover (it cost a nickle); now he was held in high esteem by the others and great things were expected of him. Many of the artists there, as they waited for fame and renown, worked at a place called Art Instruction. One found advertisements for the place even on match books, A young lady's head in profile and the invitation, "Draw me." One sent the drawing in and if it was judged to show talent - a virtual certainty -- one could enrol in the correspondence course.

Schulz too had worked there and it was there that he created the characters that would become world famous and make him enormously rich. According to the biography by David Michaelis, Schulz considered Sasseville the better artist of the two and, while Jim never attained the success of Schulz, the two men apparently collaborated on projects down the years. On one of those Saturday nights, Jim did a sketch of me that I kept it in the Basic Works of Aristotle for years. Whatever Jim drew was a keeper. But where is it now? Where is he?

Also at those parties was the eponymous Charlie Brown, another Art Instruction artist whose name Schulz had borrowed for his comic strip, and brother of the lovely Catherine with whom I struck up a friendship. This led to Sunday afternoon touch football games near Lake Calhoun. Charlie Brown, the real one, now dead, apparently lived a tragic life, searching and not finding. Once he showed up at Notre Dame, determined to become a Brother of Holy Cross, and stopped by our house. It was the last time I ever saw him.

Jim Sasseville based a cartoon character on Catherine Brown. Were we rivals of a sort?  Is either of them still alive? Some of us in that grade school class got together a few months ago, summoned by Father Marvin Deutsch, our classmate who has been a Maryknoll missionary for over half a century. It was a small reunion. Not everyone that might have come was reachable. I wish Jim Sasseville had been there.

Not many of us show up even on the edges of fame, mentioned in the biographies of the successful, a footnote to their lives, just someone in the room. What is the nature of the delight I felt in coming upon the names of people known so long ago, now separated by a lifetime? T. S. Eliot, in a variation on Dante, has a character in The Wasteland remark of those flowing over London Bridge, "I had not thought death had undone so many." People die, memories fade, not many books are around a century after publication. Do those that death has undone simply go into the dark? The people Dante mentioned in the Commedia are still on the lips of many readers even though footnotes are needed to identify them.

Even that is not eternity enough for us. The psalmist speaks of those who devote their lives to accumulating money someone else will spend, but he and Dante knew that everyone lasts. On the matchbook of life we read 'Draw me." And He does, in several senses of the term. May we end up in the Book of Life.


Ralph McInerny