Mory’s award for Garry Trudeau reunites extended ‘Doonesbury’ family

“Doonesbury” fans know them as B.D., T.F. Bannon, and Mike Doonesbury — characters in the revolutionary comic strip.

Yale knows them as Brian Dowling ’69, Tim Bannon ’70, ’76 J.D., and Charles Pillsbury ‘70. On April 18, the three real-life men appeared together in New Haven alongside their old college chum Garry Trudeau ’70, who has immortalized them and others in countless “Doonesbury” cartoon strips.

Trudeau, the strip’s creator and the winner of a 1975 Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Cartooning, came to town to accept a “Louis” award from Mory’s, the famous Yale hangout on York Street. The award, named after Mory’s founder, Louie Linder, recognizes renowned Yale graduates of extraordinary achievement.

Before a celebratory dinner (at — where else? — Mory’s), a unit of the Yale Precision Marching Band performed a serenade of sorts for Trudeau and friends in the passageway between Mory’s and Toad’s Place. When the musicians began a rendition of The Beatles’ “Hey, Jude,” Trudeau chimed in with the vocals before an admiring crowd of guests, journalists, passersby, and Handsome Dan XVII, the bulldog who is Yale’s mascot. Handsome Dan’s owner, Chris Getman ’64, was also on hand.

Earlier, Trudeau, who also holds a M.F.A. from the Yale School of Art, sat for a wide-ranging public interview with School of Art Dean Robert Storr at the University Theater.

By turns funny, poignant, insightful, and self-deprecating, Trudeau reflected on “Doonesbury’s” early days, the evolution of “rapid-response satire,” the Pentagon’s once unlikely praise for him, and the nature of the cartoonist’s craft.

“Most cartoonists think of themselves as short-order cooks,” he said. “We tend not to take such a grand or grandiose view.”

“Doonesbury’s” Yale origins are well known: As an undergraduate in the late 1960s, Trudeau was publishing comics in the Yale Daily News, including a strip called “Bull Tales,” progenitor of “Doonesbury.” This work caught the attention of professional editors, and in 1970, Trudeau’s senior year, the strip was nationally syndicated.

Trudeau’s early editors gave him clear marching orders, he recalled: “‘We’re interested in the present, a voice from the front lines [of youth culture].”

The opportunity to revel in the experience and perspective of young people was a liberating departure from the attitudes of the 1950s, noted Trudeau. “Before Bob Dylan,” he said, “it was a race to adulthood.”

Trudeau went on to establish “Doonesbury,” and comic strips in general, as an important instrument of social criticism. In the more than four decades since, the satirical strip, still in syndication, has become an icon of baby-boomer culture.

Noting that he “seemed to have a knack for paying attention” to the world around him — for keen observation — Trudeau nonetheless discouraged a view of him, especially in the strip’s early days, as deliberately audacious or courageous in his commentary.

“You also can’t underestimate the role of cluelessness,” he said. “I didn’t know what I couldn’t do.”

He credited Yale with helping him do more than he might have, offering more than a milieu, models for his characters, and a place to publish. Trudeau described an episode from an introductory art class that he expected to ace, feeling technically adept already. One day the professor, Richard Lytle (since retired), appeared behind him to inspect his work.

“‘Yes, yes, I know you can draw,” Lytle said, according to Trudeau. “But what I want to know is if you can see.”

Then Lytle tore up the work for Trudeau to begin anew.

In recent decades, Trudeau said, he’s sought to get out of his studio to learn first-hand about topics he treats in the panels of “Doonesbury,” including war.  Trips to war zones in the Middle East and visits with wounded soldiers have nourished in him a greater sympathy for soldiers, he said, and the Pentagon has praised him for reflecting this in his work.

Trudeau told of meeting a young woman at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, “a breathtakingly beautiful young woman,” who had lost most of an arm in an explosion overseas. In the event’s immediate aftermath, as she was being treated for her wounds, a group of fellow soldiers scoured the rubble for her missing hand, he said. They found it, removed her engagement ring and brought it to her

“It was a tale of gratitude, not pain or bitterness,” an example of “soldier-love,” Trudeau said. “There is no greater story.”

Trudeau was the second recipient of Mory’s “Louis” award. Actor Paul Giamatti ’89, ’94 M.F.A., received the inaugural award last year.

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