Syndicate Boss

Author: Robert Schmuhl ’70

If given the chance, he could have sold sandbags in the Sahara Desert, window air conditioners at the North Pole or bouquets of shamrocks in his beloved Ireland.

“Deals” might have been John McMeel’s nickname in later life, but when he returned to Notre Dame he’d remind anyone within earshot that during his undergraduate days in the 1950s he was called “Wheels.” Son of a South Bend physician — a team doctor for Knute Rockne’s squads — McMeel ’57 had access to a forbidden conveyance: a car. Wheels.

McMeel, who passed away July 7 at 85, will go down in American media history as one of the founders and ambassadors of a new, more risk-taking brand of communication: newspaper funny pages with a satiric edge, opinion columns with deeper bite.

To hear John reminisce about the early days of the company that became Andrews McMeel Universal, you might have thought he and his partner, James Andrews ’61, were operating on a wing and a prayer — with more prayer than wing.

While Andrews focused on content and McMeel on sales, what was first christened Universal Press Syndicate brought readers in 1970 the rebellious comic strip Doonesbury by Garry Trudeau and the trenchant analysis of columnist Garry Wills. Tom Wilson’s Ziggy and Cathy Guisewite’s Cathy as well as columns by Mary McGrory and William F. Buckley followed.

Then, on October 19, 1980, Andrews, just 44, suffered a fatal heart attack. The loss forced McMeel to assume a different role as the syndicate expanded and embarked on book publishing, with Kathleen Andrews ’63M.A. (Jim’s wife) quickly becoming its chief executive.

During the ’80s, new features — notably Gary Larson’s The Far Side and Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes — gave funny bones a daily workout, while the advice of “Dear Abby,” humor by Erma Bombeck and Roger Ebert’s movie criticism kept readers attuned to changing times.

At McMeel’s funeral, Trudeau remarked that John “willed his syndicate into being,” while Guisewite called him “our emotional support CEO,” blessed with uncanny ability: “He saw defeat as possibility.” Not making a sale never locked a future door.

David Shribman, a Pulitzer Prize winner and longtime Andrews McMeel columnist, admired and appreciated the rare ingenuity of the burgeoning company’s leader: “There was something about John McMeel — the way he understood what a columnist was trying to do, even if [the columnist] didn’t; the way he thought you were great, even if you weren’t; and the way he made you feel special even if you were just a half-degree beyond ordinary — that made you believe in your own work, even if you were a champion self-doubter. It was a form of genius, and his belief in you was a contagion. I’ve never seen anything like it, never felt anything like it, and never will experience anything like it again.”

McMeel’s conversational cheerleading encouraged “creators.” What was good for them was good for business. But that didn’t mean he always succeeded in convincing an artisan to follow his yellow brick road.

When Calvin and Hobbes was delighting devotees in over 2,400 newspapers across the globe, McMeel lamented how Watterson adamantly refused to merchandize toys or other paraphernalia. “Just think how many plush dolls of Hobbes we could sell,” he’d confide with a mock-serious frown.

McMeel and his talented team adapted to the vastly altered media environment the digital revolution produced. Today the company — recognized as the world’s largest independent syndicate — annually distributes over 200 comics, articles and puzzles, besides publishing more than 200 books and some 250 calendars. A separate division handles film and television development.

An intrepid traveler, McMeel always found time to return to South Bend and Notre Dame. He took keen interest in University work he helped initiate, such as the James F. Andrews Memorial Scholarship Fund, created in 1981 by the McMeel and Andrews families to launch the Center for Social Concerns’ Summer Service Learning Program. Andrews Scholars number nearly 4,000 over the past four decades.

In 1998, he committed to sponsoring the annual Red Smith Lecture that welcomed such noted journalists and wordsmiths as Ted Koppel, Tim Russert, Judy Woodruff and Frank McCourt to campus. He also helped to train future journalists by serving on the advisory board of the John W. Gallivan Program in Journalism, Ethics & Democracy.

But that’s not all. Twenty years ago, as John would joke, he decided to take a step up the academic ladder. The McMeel Family Chair in Shakespeare Studies was established, and it brought Professor Peter Holland’s Bardic expertise from Great Britain to Notre Dame.

McMeel’s vision for the chair was unique, according to Holland. “It’s the only Shakespeare chair in the world not to be in a Department of English or Literature. John had the insight to see that its placement in the Department of Film, Television, and Theatre opened up exciting possibilities for linking creativity and scholarship, combining the performance of Shakespeare with the study of Shakespeare.”

Today staging and study encompasses Holland’s well-known work — and Shakespeare at Notre Dame, Actors from the London Stage, Shakespeare in Prisons conferences and the Robinson Shakespeare Company for school-age South Bend children. John applauded every initiative.

Around the time the McMeel chair was created, I happened to attend a Gridiron Club Dinner in Washington, D.C., a white-tie occasion for journalists and politicians to make fun of each other.

Very few people there didn’t know John, and he bantered with legendary editors and up-and-coming cartoonists long into the after-dinner parties. Next morning he was up early, ready for more businesslike frivolity. It was fun just tagging along.

Looking back, I realized John was more than “Deals” McMeel. He, too, was a creator — an artist at friendship.

The founding director of the Gallivan program, Bob Schmuhl is a professor emeritus at Notre Dame. His book, Making Words Dance: Reflections on Red Smith, Journalism and Writing, was published in 2010 by Andrews McMeel.