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KC’s Lee Salem, godfather to such classic comic strips as ‘Doonesbury,’ ‘Cathy,’ dies

Lee Salem, who developed or edited risk-taking comic strips such as “Calvin and Hobbes,” “Doonesbury” and “The Boondocks” for Kansas City-based Universal Press Syndicate, has died at age 73.

Salem, of Leawood, died Sept. 2 from a massive stroke, said John Glynn, vice chairman and editor at large of the media corporation now called Andrews McMeel Universal.

Beloved by a tight circle of industry artists, Salem’s keen eye for finding talented and idiosyncratic writers and cartoonists led to the syndication of some of the best and most daring American comic strips of the last quarter of the 20th century. In the 40 years he served at Universal Press Syndicate, as editor or president, he discovered “Cathy” in the 1970s and “The Boondocks” in the ’90s, oversaw “Doonesbury,” “The Far Side” and “FoxTrot,” and helped develop “For Better or for Worse,” “Cul-de-Sac,” “La Cucaracha” and “Calvin and Hobbes,” some of which still appear in The Star.

“I think I’m biased, but he’ll go down as the greatest newspaper syndicate editor in the history of our industry,” said Glynn. The cultural significance of the comics he edited and launched over the course of four decades is unrivaled, he added.

Salem, who retired in 2014, was also known for coming to the defense of his cartoonists and giving them the creative liberty to do what they pleased, even when controversies arose or they pushed social conventions.

“He was someone who had an eye for non-mainstream voices,” said Lalo Alcaraz, an artist and activist whose comic “La Cucaracha” was syndicated thanks to Salem. “He’d always stand up for Garry’s (Trudeau) ‘Doonesbury’ when people were trying to dump the strip, which he did for me, too” when others wanted him to soften his political strips.

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Cartoonist Cathy Guisewite, shown with a soft sculpture of her “Cathy” character, was discovered by Lee Salem. Nick Ut Fresno Bee

“Doonesbury,” which won the first Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning in 1975 shortly after Salem arrived at the syndicate, often faced cancellation for its controversial satirizing of political and social issues. But Salem staunchly backed it and its creator, taking on critics with a cool calmness that some referred to as his “New England reserve.”

Part of Salem’s legacy was his championing of diverse voices and perspectives, or as Alcaraz put it, “making minority voices in the comic’s pages not seem as isolated and oddball and different.”

Among them was Lynn Johnston’s “For Better or For Worse,” which Salem helped launch in the late 1970s. The comic touched on subjects such as abuse and mental and physical handicaps and featured the coming out of a character, a strip that dozens of newspapers rejected.

“Lee gave so many of us a chance to say things that had never been said on the comic pages, through the kind of characters that had never been seen,” Cathy Guisewite, creator of “Cathy,” said in a statement. “He saw big possibility in little scribbles, gently guided us, and was an absolute rock behind us. He gave us time to find our voices and earn our space.”

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Lee Salem helped develop Bill Watterson’s “Calvin and Hobbes.” File

In the course of his career, Salem was also at the forefront of returning intellectual property from syndicates back to cartoonists. Perhaps the best known case involved Bill Watterson, author of “Calvin and Hobbes.”

After the success of the strip, Watterson refused to license it, rejecting options for TV and movie adaptations, plush toys, T-shirts or hats.

“Lee, in his wisdom, realized that if we exploited those rights without permission, that (Watterson would) leave and retire,” Glynn said. So he gave the rights back to Watterson, knowing he’d have a long, fruitful relationship with the syndicate.

Born July 21, 1946, Salem grew up in New Hampshire and Massachusetts. He earned his bachelor’s from then-Park College, where he met his wife, Anita, and earned his master’s in English from the University of Missouri-Kansas City in 1972. He joined the syndicate as assistant editor in 1974. In 1981, he became vice president and editorial director, and served as president of the syndicate from 2006 until he retired.

Prior to his retirement, Salem received the Silver T-Square Award from the National Cartoonists Society for “his outstanding dedication or service to the society or the profession.”

Always loyal and nurturing, Salem looked out for his artists, recalled Alcaraz, and “he could drink as hard as any cartoonist.”

In addition to his wife, Salem is survived by his daughter Laura, son Matt and five grandchildren. The family requests donations to the Salvation Army or the Youth Symphony of Kansas City.

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