Tony Auth: An appreciation


What I’ll miss most – and there is so much that I’ll miss about Tony Auth – is the joy.

The buoyant joy that Tony found in his work, in his colleagues in craft, and in a world that, while never quite living up to his bold expectations, never failed to fill him with delight, curiosity and hope.

People seem frequently to imagine the editorial cartoonist as a dour, sarcastic sort, all curmudgeonly snarls.

Those people never had the privilege to hang around Tony Auth’s drawing board as he wove his wonders.

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Yes, his pen could be a rapier that flew to its mark. But he never wielded it in sour cynicism. Always in hope. Sometimes anger, too, but always hope.

Here’s an enduring image of him, from the 14 years we spent together in the trenches at The Inquirer editorial board, and the blessed bonus of two more at WHYY…

Tony bends over his drawing space, pen in hand, his beloved NPR accompanying his labors through his headphones – the very portrait of a man finding bliss at work.

I tap on his shoulder (often the only way to get his attention off his pen … and Terry Gross). Then that huge smile dawns inside that snow-white beard. He swivels in his seat, and suddenly his bright-blue attention is fully on whatever question, idea or challenge has brought me to his lair.

As readers, you know him best through his work – the thousands of editorial cartoons bringing wit, insight and outrage to topics as near as City Hall and far away as Kabul.

Or his sweetly whimsical observations in his cartoons for the Inquirer’s late, lamented Sunday magazine. Or his magical children’s books – done solo or with the distinguished likes of Chaim Potok. Or the Christmas stories he and I crafted together over the last 15 years.

The work is a fine way to know the man – for he was fully genuine in the way he drew a line and composed a phrase, never a disguise to what he felt, what he thought, what his moral energy called him to do.

But even that was not the best way to know him – for as fine a cartoonist as William Anthony Auth was for so many productive decades, he was an even better friend and colleague.

Many newspaper cartoonists do prefer a solitary mode. Not Tony.

Year after year, he was one of the first in his seat for the morning meetings on The Inquirer editorial board. His pride lay not just in his own work, but in the journalistic team of which he was an enthusiastic, indispensable part.

And this may surprise you, but in those often contentious dialogues in the Fishbowl, the board’s meeting room at the old white tower on North Broad, Tony was often as not the voice of calm and compromise.

As sharp as his wit could be on the page, he was a soother of conflict in the flesh.

And as a friend… ahhh, the times he’d gesture me into “the therapy chair” in front of his big desk in his old Inquirer office, with its swell view of City Hall down Broad Street. Time to listen Tony always had (or made), as well as sage advice on how to sail choppy waters. (And, no wonder, given what a dedicated sailor of real seas he was.)

Tony came to WHYY and NewsWorks two-plus years ago, relishing his chance to write for his career an ambitious coda — as our artist in residence.

I often joked with him that he must secretly be The Most Interesting Man in the World of the Dos Equis ads, because somehow he “could draw cartoons for the radio.”

Fact was, even at the age of 70, he embraced with joy (that word again) the challenges of translating his ink-stained craft into the new modes of digital animation and audio. And he did it so well, in the time that fate and disease allowed him. (If you do nothing else in his memory today, watch the animated video he made of his trip down French rivers aboard a barge. Magic.)

At WHYY, I smiled to see how working amidst its fired-up, creative young journalists helped Tony recapture his delight in the collegial energy of a newsroom. That had frayed a bit through his last, chaos-haunted years at The Inquirer, but he relished being around youth again.

One of those reporters wrote me sadly Sunday night when news of his passing spread: “Tony was a great man. Thank you for giving us a chance to know him.”

For much of Tony’s time at WHYY he was fighting the cancer that on Sunday extinguished his great light. He worked and worked through chemo and radiation and operations and setbacks.

It wouldn’t be true, I don’t think, to say, in that tired cliche, that Tony “battled” his cancer. Better to put it that he refused to surrender his joy to the disease, that he sought whenever possible to float above that battlefield, to choose optimism over grim struggle.

He rarely complained about tubes or procedures. He would just growl, “I’ve just got to get past this phase, so I can get back to work. I have so many more great ideas to work on, so much more to invent. Let’s just get to it!”

The last conversation I had with him in this vein was not more than a month ago. He had by then resigned himself to the knowledge that this disease would be what ended him.

But he would never surrender hope; he just rewrote the terms. He hoped fiercely for one more surge of energy and clear mind, for a few more precious moments to do just a little more work that could make him proud and give you all delight.

His greatest regret in dying was of course to leave behind his beloved Eliza, and their two girls, of whom he was so, so proud, Katie and Emily.

But in the next rank of regret — to the degree that Tony Auth ever allowed himself that emotion — was the pain he felt at not being able to give you, his beloved audience, the drawings he could still see in his mind’s eye. He desperately wanted to give you more gifts, to make you smile, spur you to think, coax you to change the world.

Those final gifts, painfully, will drift forever in the limbo of what could have been.

But what Tony Auth gave us, over four rollicking decades, was more than just drawings memorable, distinguished and rare.

He showed us the way of principled optimism. He showed us how to live with joy.

Thank you, my good friend. I love you and I will miss you on every day that I get to do the work we so loved to do together.

You can see a great retrospective of Tony’s work at the Philadelphia Foundation, 1234 Market St, Philadelphia. The Foundation is the home for the fund to raise money to locate the Tony Auth archive at Temple University. Setting up that archive in digital form at Temple, so that generations of students and historians can use his work to learn more about the America Tony chronicled, was a passion of his final years. You can help make that happen with a gift to The Tony Auth Fund, care of the Philadelphia Foundation.

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