Q. Please solve a 20-year-old family mystery. My parents were Mary and Norbert Anton Zeman, and my siblings, Vlasta and Zdenek Zeman were born in Lipovljani, Jugoslavia. We came to this country on Christmas 1929. Now the strange coincidence: In the May 25, 1994, Hi and Lois cartoon strip in your paper, Mrs. Flagston is trying to enroll her youngest daughter, Trixie, at the Tiny Tots Pre-School. On the door, it says “Mary Zeman, Dir.” Now, my mother’s name is Mary Zeman and I have a niece-in-law named Mary Zeman, but how did the cartoonist choose this name out of all the names he could have chosen? I just don’t think it’s that common.
— Yarmilla Zaruba, of Belleville
A. As Brian Walker can tell you, it’s not quite as rare as you think.
For the past 30 years, Walker has been one of the brains behind Hi and Lois after taking over the strip from his father, Mort, in the 1980s. As you correctly conjectured, when Walker needs to introduce a name in his strip, he often just picks one out of the air that’s not too common, yet not too outlandish.
“Usually, it’s just some random name that you pick, one that doesn’t sound too specific,” Walker told me during a cordial phone chat Thursday from his studio in New Canaan, Conn. “Mary Smith is probably too common, but, you know, Enielle Zukorello sounds a little too ethnic.”
Sometimes, however, he likes to have a little fun with his very real friends. One in particular was a Chuck Green, who went bald relatively early. So in one strip, he had Hi and Lois attending Lois’ high school reunion. At one point Hi asks Lois whether a man at a nearby table might be her old prep flame, Chuck Green. She replies, “I don’t know. The last time I saw him he had a pompadour and a motorcycle jacket.”
“Now, he’s just sort of a middle-age guy with a bald head and chubby,” Walker chuckled. “It’s always fun to make fun of your friends in print.”
And that’s how Walker came to use Mary Zeman in that 1994 strip you saw. In the early 1990s, Walker and his wife, Abby, enrolled first their daughter, Sarah, and then their son, David, in The Montessori School in Wilton, Conn., where the Walkers still reside. Later, Abby, who majored in modern dance in college, wound up teaching drama there for 17 years. And who was the school’s director (and Abby’s boss)? You guessed it — Mary Zeman. So Walker decided to pay tribute by working Zeman’s name into his 1994 strip — and having a little fun in the process.
In the strip you saw, Lois is trying to enroll Trixie at the preschool but before she is even given an enrollment form, the admissions director asks her how much fundraising experience she has. Walker says that gag and another he remembers are rooted in reality. For example, he remembers while enrolling his own children he was asked whether he was committed to keeping his children there for the entire three-year program and similar questions. Walker decided to spoof these inquiries by drawing another Zeman strip that referred to a talent show the school had started.
“The show was for the parents, so the parents could get up on stage and perform whatever it is that they used to do,” Walker said. “So we thought it would be funny is she asked incoming parents whether they had any special talent. You know, she was auditioning them for the talent show before the kid was even accepted just to see if there was any potential.”
Zeman and her husband, Mich (shortened from Michael and pronounced “Mitch”), obviously had a sense of humor because the bonds between the two families have only strengthened over the years. When Mich became minister of the Talmadge Hill Community Church in nearby Darien, Conn., the Walkers began attending, and Abby sings in the choir. Mary retired last June as the Wilton school director after 30 years in the Montessori family that started soon after she enrolled the couple’s own two children. When her husband was fresh out of college, she and Mich served as missionaries in Kenya, where they built an orphanage, managed water projects and taught literacy.
Brian Walker, meanwhile, continues to work hard at keeping the Flagston cartoon family as fresh as it was when took over the strip three decades ago from his dad, who had started it on Oct. 18, 1954.
“His staff of guys had been working for him for years so their kids were all grown up and some of them were grandfathers,” said Walker, who works on a team with brother Greg, Chance Browne (son of the late Hi and Lois cartoonist Dik Browne) and Eric Reaves. “So they were kind of losing touch with that young parent thing, which is what Hi and Lois is kind of about. And I had just gotten married and was starting a family so we could put that stuff right into the comic the way my father used to do when we were growing up.”
You might think, well, it was an inevitable like-father, like-son passing of the torch. After all, Mort, now 91, still draws Beetle Bailey “in his kind of gnarled-up hand” after starting the strip way back in 1950 even before Beetle had even joined the Army to become a constant thorn in Sgt. Orville Snorkel’s side. He has won a ton of awards (including a precursor to the Reuben — the cartoonists’ Oscar — in 1953) and has been a member of the National Cartoonists Society Hall of Fame since 2006. But it actually took the young Walker some time to decide on his calling.
“I think because people knew when I was growing up that my father was a cartoonist, I was always hooked into doing the poster for the dance or the editorial cartoon for my high school paper,” he said. “I did cartoons in college and stuff, too, but there was definitely a time sort of as a child of the ’60s that I kind of went off on my own. I did a lot of traveling — I traveled through Africa — and when I came back home, I just didn’t really know what I was going to do. You know, painting houses and stuff.”
But in the early ’70s, he agreed to help his father develop a national cartoon museum, which opened in 1974 in Stamford, Conn. After several moves, it closed in 2002 and its collection is now part of the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum at Ohio State University, but Walker has since curated dozens of cartoon exhibitions, taught cartoon history and written, edited or or contributed to three dozen books. During most of that time, he also has been breathing life into Hi and Lois.
“We work at it pretty hard to update it all the time, but not to change things so much that it throws people off who have been reading it a long time,” he said. “So the characters essentially stay the same but things like cell phones and computers and cars — the backgrounds and props and things, you have to change those.”
Now 63, he hopes he still has many more years of bringing smiles to readers’ faces. At the moment, there is not going to be a third generation of Hi and Lois cartoonists, at least not from his family. His daughter, Sarah, is a teacher at the Germantown Friends School in Philadelphia. (“Actually, I just got back from the bank. She got married in October and she’s buying a house tomorrow.”) Son David, 25, works as a videographer with John Hancock Insurance in Boston. (“Hopefully, he’s going to go off and make his own movies some day.”)
“So there are two nice things about the cartooning business,” he said. “One is you get to work at home or close to home. So you get to be there when your kids are growing up and you know what’s going on it their lives and stuff. That was true growing up with my father, and it was true for my kids with me.
“And, like I say, my father is still working at 91, so I’ve got maybe another 30 years to go. Who knows?”
What college did the cartoon character Beetle Bailey attend?
Answer to Saturday’s trivia: In 1787, the Congress of the Confederation authorized the minting of the first U.S. copper penny. It became known as the Fugio cent because the obverse side featured a sun looking down on a sundial with the word Fugio, which is Latin for “I flee/fly,” likely a reference to time. Reportedly designed by Benjamin Franklin, it also reminds people to “Mind Your Business.”
Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427, firstname.lastname@example.org or call 618-239-2465.