The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

John McMeel, newspaper syndicator who brought ‘Doonesbury’ to millions of readers, dies at 85

John P. McMeel, left, with “Doonesbury” creator Garry Trudeau in San Francisco in 2003. (Liz Hafalia/San Francisco Chronicle/Getty Images)

A previous version of this article incorrectly said that Kathleen Andrews, the wife of Mr. McMeel’s business partner, Jim Andrews, served as chief executive of the syndicate now known as Andrews McMeel Universal. She served as chief executive of the company’s publishing division. The article has been corrected.

John P. McMeel, a newspaper syndicator who enlivened American funny pages with the distribution of comic strips such as “Doonesbury,” “Calvin and Hobbes” and “Cathy” and delivered the writings of columnists including Abigail Van Buren and Garry Wills to millions of readers across the United States, died July 7 at his home in Kansas City, Mo. He was 85.

His company, founded as Universal Press Syndicate and now called Andrews McMeel Universal, announced his death but did not cite a cause.

Mr. McMeel, a law school dropout once dubbed “Deals McMeel” for his gift for salesmanship, started his syndicate with friend Jim Andrews in 1970. With an early coup — the first cartoonist they signed was Garry Trudeau, then a student cartoonist for the Yale Daily News and later of “Doonesbury” fame — their operation grew into the world’s largest independent newspaper syndicate.

By Mr. McMeel’s account, that success hardly seemed foreordained when the two entrepreneurs opened their operation in the basement of Andrews’s rental home outside Kansas City.

“When we started out, it was just our two families running the company. We were going up against big staffs and a lot of money from the likes of Tribune Media, the New York Times, Scripps Howard, United Media, King Features Syndicate [owned by Hearst] and others,” Mr. McMeel said in a 2005 interview with the publication U.S. Business Review.

“Our goal was to differentiate ourselves and go for features more-established syndicates wouldn’t be interested in,” he continued. “We rolled the dice more. It was ‘survive or die’ from the beginning, and it paid off.”

They called their operation Universal Press Syndicate, according to information provided by the company, because they thought “the name sounded impressive.” Andrews was credited with recruiting Trudeau when he was penning a college newspaper strip called “Bull Tales,” with characters including a right-leaning football player called B.D.

Later renamed “Doonesbury,” Trudeau’s creation became a landmark of cartooning as one of the first newspaper comic strips to plunge headlong into politics. While other fixtures of the funny pages trafficked in tame, even childlike humor, “Doonesbury” addressed matters such as drugs, divorce and the AIDS epidemic — sometimes to the vexation of editors, who on occasion declined to print installments that they judged to have crossed the bounds of propriety.

In 1975, five years after Mr. McMeel and Andrews introduced Trudeau to U.S. newspaper readers, Trudeau received the Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning. “Doonesbury” was carried by nearly 2,000 newspapers at its peak, at least partly as a result of Mr. McMeel’s promotion.

“His blarney was legendary,” Trudeau said, according to the syndicate’s announcement of Mr. McMeel’s death, “but behind it was a deep regard and respect for the artists he championed. That loyalty was mutual; many of us fondly called him ‘boss’ for decades.”

Other cartoonists in Mr. McMeel’s stable included Bill Watterson of “Calvin and Hobbes,” Gary Larson of “The Far Side,” Tom Wilson Sr. of “Ziggy,” Lynn Johnston of “For Better or for Worse” and, after years of courtship, Jim Davis of “Garfield.”

Cathy Guisewite, the creator of “Cathy,” a strip that centered on a hapless character struggling to find her way as a modern woman, told The Washington Post on Wednesday that Mr. McMeel helped her reach millions of readers at a time when almost no comic strips touched on contemporary women’s concerns.

He “blindly believed . . . that I could be a voice for women going through a time of huge transition in the late 1970s, and John was like the cheerleader of all cheerleaders,” Guisewite said. “He sold my work to newspaper editors who had kind of no idea what was coming at them, and he convinced them to take a chance on me.”

“Because he was willing to stand behind cartoonists with different, edgier voices,” she added, “he really opened up the comic pages for a whole new generation.”

The writers Mr. McMeel and Andrews syndicated over the years included Seymour Hersh, who received a 1970 Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on the My Lai Massacre in Vietnam; conservative columnist William F. Buckley Jr.; film critic Roger Ebert; and Erma Bombeck, a humorist who drew laughs and insight from suburban domestic life.

They snagged Pauline Phillips, better known as Abigail Van Buren of the “Dear Abby” advice column, by surprising her at her Beverly Hills home the day after a phone conversation in which she invited the two to “stop by” if ever they were “in the neighborhood.”

“I look out my window and I see these two guys trudging up my driveway,” Van Buren told the Kansas City Star years later. “I liked both of them immediately. I said, ‘You’d probably like to see my list [of papers that carry ‘Dear Abby’], so I pull out this printout and it just cascades down to the floor and they’re like, ‘Oh, my Lord.’ Working with them is like being a part of their family.”

John Paul McMeel was born Jan. 26, 1936, in South Bend, Ind., where his father was the doctor for the University of Notre Dame football team. His mother was a homemaker.

The younger McMeel received a bachelor’s degree in business from Notre Dame in 1957 before enrolling in and then dropping out of the law school at Indiana University. He moved to New York and began selling newspaper features for what was then the Hall Syndicate.

During a visit home, he met Andrews, then a Notre Dame student who was renting a room from Mr. McMeel’s mother. Andrews later became managing editor of the National Catholic Reporter in Kansas City before the two men established their syndicate.

Andrews was 44 when he died of a heart attack in 1980, a tragedy that devastated Mr. McMeel. “We were closer than brothers,” he later said.

Andrews’s wife, Kathleen, went on to become chief executive of the syndicate’s publishing division. She died in April. Mr. McMeel served as president until 2000 and was chairman emeritus at the time of his death. The company today incudes digital entertainment, book publishing, calendar and greeting-card divisions.

In 1966, Mr. McMeel married Susan Sykes. Besides his wife, of Kansas City, survivors include three daughters, Maureen McMeel Carroll and Suzanne McMeel Glynn, both of Kansas City, as well as Bridget McMeel Rohmer of Los Angeles and nine grandchildren.

Mr. McMeel earned the loyalty of his artists by allowing them to retain a degree of creative control that few other syndicates would have allowed. When Watterson objected to lucrative merchandising agreements on the grounds that they would cheapen “Calvin and Hobbes,” Mr. McMeel said, the company returned the rights to him.

“It is the custom for columnists to complain about their syndicates, but I can’t,” Mary McGrory, a longtime columnist for The Post and the Washington Star, once wrote, expressing her affection for Mr. McMeel and Andrews. “Mine is the syndicate with a soul.”

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