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'Toughest of Cartoonists . . . Nicest of Guys'

Herblock's Many Friends And Fans Say Goodbye

By Karlyn Barker and Caryle Murphy
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, October 16, 2001; Page B01

Cartoonist Herbert L. Block was remembered by friends and colleagues yesterday as a gentle man with a mighty pen who skewered the powerful and the pompous but never forgot the importance of kindness.

"The ultimate paradox," Washington Post Co. Chairman Donald E. Graham told mourners at Washington National Cathedral, "was that this toughest of cartoonists was the nicest of guys."

The man known to millions of newspaper readers as "Herblock" died Oct. 7 of pneumonia. He was 91.

About 650 people attended the funeral service for the four-time Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist, whose work spanned seven decades, including nearly 55 years at The Washington Post.

Mourners included current and former colleagues from The Post newsroom; his nephew, Richard Block, and several great-nephews and -nieces; and about a dozen prominent editorial cartoonists he mentored or inspired, among them Tony Auth, Jeff Danziger, Tom Engelhardt, Mike Luckovich, Pat Oliphant and Ann Telnaes.

"Some say Herblock is to editorial cartooning what Disney was to animation," Mike Peters, cartoonist for the Dayton Daily News, said in one eulogy. "Personally, I think Herblock is to editorial cartooning what sharks are to body parts."

Peters called Herblock a "father figure" who was like the Obi-Wan Kenobi character in the "Star Wars" films -- until it was time to go to work.

As the cathedral crowd chuckled, Peters evoked "the great dichotomy" in Herblock's personality. "You'd see this sweet, wonderful Obi-Wan Kenobi walking across the city room," Peters said. "He would go into his office and shut the door, and then he would turn into Darth Vader, the dark force that all the politicians were afraid of."

In his tribute, Graham recalled some of the ferocious, dead-on drawings that Herblock created to challenge presidents, the nuclear arms race and McCarthyism, a term Herblock coined. His greatest cartoons, Graham said, always had bite, none more so than when he was taking on Richard Nixon.

"He was the world's most unreconstructed Nixon hater," Graham said.

Herblock's liberal views on civil rights, the environment, gun control, campaign reform and other topics rankled many and infuriated those who were the butt of his satirical handiwork.

Of course, Post editorial writer Robert L. Asher noted, most later called to request autographed copies.

"Herb was a genius and a journalist -- how oxymoronic," Asher said in his eulogy. And as Herblock neared 92, "his final punches were as jarring and on the mark as any he landed" during his 72 years on the job. "He saw patterns of evil that deeply offended his unwavering values."

Asher also shared a story that Herblock loved to tell: Once, at a Capitol Hill hearing where he was sketching Sen. Joseph McCarthy, an aide to the self-appointed chaser of communists leaned over and whispered: "You draw good."

Before his death, Herblock was making arrangements to donate most of his life's work, including hundreds of unpublished cartoons, to the Library of Congress.

At yesterday's service, adorning a small table at the rear of the vast cathedral were a dozen red roses in a crystal vase, sent by the Gridiron Club of Washington, a journalist group that annually roasts the nation's top political figures.

Herblock, who never married, was the son of a Jewish father and a Catholic mother. He requested that his funeral be held at the cathedral but be nondenominational. The cathedral's dean, the Rev. Nathan D. Baxter, delivered the homily.

The ceremony opened with the tolling of the cathedral's Bourdon bell and a procession of more than two dozen honorary pallbearers, including Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr., former Post executive editor Benjamin C. Bradlee, CBS News correspondent Bob Schieffer and Post political columnists David S. Broder and Mary McGrory.

Behind them, the cathedral's assistant verger, Larry E. Keller, carried Herblock's cremated remains under a gold satin cloth.

In interviews, those who worked with Herblock and those who never met him talked about how much he will be missed.

"He was such a wonderfully warm human being. It felt so good being around him," said Jean Rickard, Herblock's assistant for 44 years and one of 13 current and former aides, who call themselves "Blockettes." "He was the most humble person I have ever met in my 65 years. He'd go, 'Ah, shucks,' when someone would give him a compliment," said Rickard, who was an usher at the service.

Retired Post reporter Murrey Marder said, "We'll all be waiting with the greatest of expections to see how this void can be filled, if it can be filled at all." He said Herblock "represented the true spirit of the newsroom: independent journalism and protection of individual rights and liberties. He completely embodied it, and we really need him right now, because he had a capacity to etch in ink the core of the issue more than any of us with a pen."

Joe Laitin, the Post's ombudsman from 1986-88, said Herblock advised him to publish his internal criticisms of the paper's performance so they would have more impact. "He was right," Laitin said. "The staff paid no attention to me until they saw me writing a column."

Laitin, 87, also had fond memories of Herblock's custom of distributing Christmas cookies baked by his secretaries: "They were the best cookies I ever had!"

Soma Komar never met Herblock, but the professor emeritus of chemistry at Georgetown University said the cartoonist was one of his inspirations after he immigrated here from India in 1948. "I learned so much from his cartoons; his liberal views meant so much to me," said Komar, who called Herblock "my political mentor."

Friend and fan Dixie Scott echoed many: "I always read the front page and then I read [Herblock's] cartoon. I'm going to miss it a lot."


© 2001 The Washington Post Company