‘Beetle Bailey’ cartoonist Mort Walker was an MCC alumnus

“Beetle Bailey” creator Mort Walker

After Mort Walker, creator of the iconic “Beetle Bailey” comic strip, died Jan. 27, The Kansas City Star called him a “Mizzou alum.”

True. But before Walker attended the University of Missouri, he studied at the Junior College of Kansas City, the institution now known as Metropolitan Community College.

Walker, born in El Dorado, Kan., but raised in Kansas City, died at his Stamford, Conn., home at age 94.

He attended the Junior College for two semesters in 1941-42, according to his transcript kept on microfiche at MCC. The “cumulative record,” filled out in pen, shows that “Walker, Addison Morton” took classes including art, chemistry, biology, English composition, history and physical education here.

Walker, admitted in September 1941, was enrolled in the pre-journalism curriculum at the Junior College. The record also indicates that a copy of his transcript was sent to MU.

He graduated from Northeast High School in Kansas City, where he was editor of the school paper and the yearbook, acted on stage and in a radio show, and was a cheerleader. He sold his first cartoon at age 11 and started drawing a strip called “The Limejuicers” for the old Kansas City Journal newspaper at 13. By 14, he was selling cartoons to national magazines such as “Child’s Life.”

“When I started at Kansas City Junior College, I was amazed at how smart my classmates were and embarrassed by how little I knew,” Walker wrote in the book “Mort Walker’s Private Scrapbook,” published by Hallmark in 2000. “I realized I’d spent my high school days having fun, dating, and being a politician. Suddenly I had a tremendous desire to learn, so I threw myself into my studies.”

A portion of Mort Walker’s Junior College of Kansas City transcript in 1941-42

No doubt Hallmark is proud of Walker — he’s an alumnus of there, too. “I had borrowed $25 to pay my first year’s tuition to Kansas City Junior College and had to get a job to support myself while going to school,” Walker wrote. So he found work on the night shift in the shipping department at Hall Brothers (later Hallmark Cards).

“I left home each morning with two bags of food, one for lunch at school, the other for dinner in the park before going to work.”

In the Comics Journal (2009),  Walker reaffirmed his financial status in those days. “I didn’t have any money,” he wrote. His father, an architect, couldn’t pay his tuition, he added.

Walker would have attended the Junior College in its final year at its original downtown location, 11th and Locust streets. The college relocated to 38th and McGee in Westport in the fall of 1942.

“Somehow the education bug bit me about this time,” Walker wrote in the book “Backstage at the Strips” (1975). “I had never been much of a student, but the year at the Kansas City Junior College had opened my eyes. I wanted to learn. Missouri University has one of the top journalism schools in the world, and I decided that fit right into my life plan.”

While still at the Junior College, Walker moved up at Hallmark: He was hired as an artist.

“My cartoon style was an innovation in the greeting card business,” he wrote in the Hallmark book. To that point, most cards were flowery or cutesy. His artwork tended to be humorous. He also drew all the Disney cards, including Bambi, and continued to do work for Hallmark at Mizzou.

He attended MU for just a semester before being drafted into the Army in 1943. After fighting World War II in Europe, he was discharged in 1947 as a first lieutenant. Following his 1948 graduation from Mizzou, where he edited a campus humor magazine, he would go on to New York to pursue his cartooning career.

In addition to “Beetle Bailey,” he co-created other strips including the family-themed “Hi and Lois.”

His Army experiences provided material for “Beetle Bailey,” which he launched in 1950. The comic with a lazy, anti-authority Army private as its hero would eventually run in some 1,100 newspapers. “Beetle Bailey’s” Camp Swampy was inspired by Walker’s Army time at Camp Crowder near Neosho, Mo.

According to King Features, which syndicates “Beetle Bailey”:

Mort was working as a magazine cartoonist in New York when John Bailey, the cartoon editor of the Saturday Evening Post, encouraged Mort to do some cartoons based on his college experiences at the University of Missouri.  One character, a goof-off with a hat over his eyes named “Spider,” emerged from these efforts.  After selling a few college cartoons to the Saturday Evening Post, Mort then decided to submit a comic strip to King Features Syndicate starring Spider and his fraternity brothers.  When King bought the strip, Mort changed Spider’s first name to “Beetle” (another King strip, Big Ben Bolt, had a character named Spider) and added “Bailey” in honor of John Bailey.

The college-themed strip didn’t catch fire until the Korean War. Walker decided to have Beetle enlist in the Army, and “Beetle Bailey,” which was appearing in just 25 newspapers six months after its debut, quickly signed up 100 more papers.

“Beetle Bailey” was reportedly the longest-running comic strip to be drawn by the artist who created it.

(With thanks to MCC Archivist Janice Lee and Michele Allen for their research)

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