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Cartoonist Joe McCarty wanted the world, but destiny drew him back to Milan, Mo.

Even though Joe McCarty says he is retired from drawing cartoons, he still has workspace in his home.
Even though Joe McCarty says he is retired from drawing cartoons, he still has workspace in his home. The Kansas City Star

Joe McCarty couldn’t wait to blow town after high school graduation.

He wanted to get out in the world and make his mark with his pencils and brushes. So that very May night in 1932, he jumped on a train to Chicago to go to cartoon illustration school.

But he had to come back to Milan when his mother got her hand caught in one of those new electric wringer washers.

Later he went to California to work, but the same thing happened: summoned again by bad things at home. He didn’t see much future in the job out there anyway — painting mice for some guy named Disney.

But in Milan, population about 2,000, he started to fret he would never get to leave.

Then he met the prettiest girl in town.

That’s certified. An outfit came through and put on a beauty contest for the girls in Milan.

“She won that damn thing,” said McCarty, 99. “She was also valedictorian, so I got the prettiest girl and the smartest girl.”

He never did leave Milan. He didn’t even leave his house. He’s lived in the same place 95 years, the last 74 with Frances.

But while McCarty never hit the big time in the art world, every day is sort of a Joe McCarty exhibition in Milan. His work is all over the old brick walls in town. He’s painted about every sign on every storefront. He’s done oils and murals. His work hangs in the Sullivan County Museum.

And for 54 years, he’s drawn a weekly cartoon for The Milan Standard. Not all of them universally appreciated.

“Well, I’m sorry you don’t like it, but …,” Mary Ann Clark at the paper told many an irate reader over the years.

Biting political wit?

“Well,” McCarty said, “I got a big mouth.”

Now it’s over. McCarty used his Sept. 4 cartoon to tell readers he was done. He quit painting signs a few years ago when Frances caught him high on a ladder — on steps, sideways, a stack of books under the free ladder leg. He was 95.

“Frances just blew her stack,” Clark said.

McCarty is fixing to leave the house his father built when he was 5 and move into a care center with Frances, who has been hospitalized for some time after a fall. She also suffers memory loss.

“Well, I’m almost a hundred,” he said this past week in his living room. “We don’t have much time left. I’m going to go out there and spend the rest of what we got with her.

“I’ve had a good ride.”

Always pulled home

It started with another kind of ride.

On the night of Dec. 22, 1914, a foot of snow covered the ground in Milan and an umbilical cord coiled around Joe McCarty’s neck as he was delivered in the family home.

His father, a railroad man, took out in the dark for the town doctor, who was laid up from a broken a leg suffered in a buggy accident caused by a runaway team.

“My dad got him on a sled and pulled him back through all that snow,” McCarty said. “If he hadn’t got him there, I might never have been born.”

Milan, about two hours northeast of Kansas City, was a railroad terminal town. At one time, 500 or so people worked for the railroad there. McCarty’s father started out there before actually going out with the trains. He was gone days at a time.

That was the problem when McCarty went to Chicago and his mother got hurt by the washer. He had to give up his job frying hamburgers at White Castle to help out at home.

But his mother healed, and McCarty and a buddy took off for Los Angeles. It was the early days of the Great Depression and they were taking advantage of travel passes the two got because their fathers worked for the railroad.

McCarty tested and did some work for Walt Disney’s production company. McCarty found the animation job boring. He would later tell people back in Milan that Disney wouldn’t amount to much.

“I think he’s glad he got to go out there and do that kind of work for a while, though,” said his son, Steve McCarty of Olathe.

Then Joe McCarty’s mother got cancer. And once again it fell to him, the youngest, to take care of things at home. His father had the railroad job, his sister lived in Chicago and his brother was in a Civilian Conservation Corps camp.

“Seemed like every time I had a good shot at something, I had to come back and take care of somebody,” McCarty said.

His mother died and he helped run the house for his father. But McCarty made the most of life back in Milan. He painted some, won a few jitterbug contests and married Frances, who worked at the newspaper for 30 years. They would have three children. He ran a paint store.

He went to war with Gen. George Patton, and when McCarty got back, there would never again be a gun in the house. He began painting in a big way in 1945. When work slowed in town, he hit the road, going town to town putting lettering on storefronts, grain elevators, water towers, propane tanks and pickup doors.

“I slept in my truck a lot of nights out there,” McCarty said in the living room, surrounded by photos of children and grandchildren.

For 20 years, he was a football and basketball referee. He even found time to be the public address announcer at Milan High School football games. But he had a recurring problem of letting censor-worthy words slip out when his sons were on the field.

Steve McCarty laughed at the memory.

“I think they finally had to ask him to quit that job because of that,” he said.

Everybody knows Joe

Every day about 11:30 a.m., a white Impala pulls into the parking lot of Sullivan County Memorial Hospital in Milan.

That’s McCarty arriving to have lunch with Frances. He never misses.

“He’s a sweet old man,” a hospital worker said.

When he leaves an hour or so later, someone calls to him outside.

“Hello, Joe! You doing OK?”

Downtown, another voice, same greeting. And again. Everybody in Milan knows Joe McCarty.

He still bounces when he walks, laughs big and loves his Missouri Tigers.

“About every kid in school for generations has interviewed him for some school project,” Mary Ann Clark said.

“And everybody has seen him up on a ladder somewhere around town,” said her husband, Charley Clark.

He was the guy people went to when they needed a sign or artwork done. The museum has the “Joe McCarty Stairwell” in which he chronicled Sullivan County history decade by decade. He even applied the varnish to the woodwork in the courthouse.

“I used to drive around town and just pick out all the things he did,” son Steve said.

McCarty didn’t want to give it up, but as he said, “I was always the kind who couldn’t sit. Now I can’t stand for long.”

So the man who started drawing when he had to dip ink has finally put his pens and brushes in the old wooden box and is preparing to go stay with Frances, the prettiest girl in town.

Kathy Clay at the museum knows the couple well and understands.

“Neither one of them is whole without the other,” she said.

Milan will miss Joe McCarty’s work. He wanted the world, but he made his mark here. On the bricks in his hometown.

High and forever.

To reach Donald Bradley, call 816-234-4182 or send email to dbradley@kcstar.com.

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