July 23, 2007
The big picture
Sam Marie Engle ’90C, senior associate director in Emory’s Office of University Community Partnerships, remembers political cartoonist
Doug Marlette, the famed political cartoonist, once helped me set up chairs at Emory. We were preparing the Winship Ballroom for one of the last presentations he would give before winning the Pulitzer Prize. Doug — and the chairs and his cartoons — helped chart the course of my life.
Doug had arrived early to set up the slide show that would illustrate his keynote address for the Stipe Society’s annual Creative Scholarship Competition. When he saw me struggling with the huge stacks of chairs, he insisted on helping. I confessed that I was doing this job solo because of a cartoon he recently had penned for The Atlanta Constitution that depicted the Israeli army as troopers storming into an attic shouting “Anne Frank!” while a startled girl looked up from her diary. Some faculty and students had complained to our faculty advisors and to the administration, who in turn suggested I might want to withdraw the cartoonist’s speaking invitation and find a replacement.
What should I do? This was 1988, a time of big hair and big egos and little tolerance. I was a shy, sensitive junior, a peacemaker, not a campus big shot. I usually sat quietly in class, studiously taking notes, thinking, but rarely speaking out. I expressed myself through poetry and deep conversations with my small circle of friends. Most expected me to do what I was told and find a replacement.
But being a part of a thinking community like Emory meant not only thinking about things, but perhaps more importantly, thoughtfully acting. It’s what Doug Marlette spent his entire career doing. He thought about the foibles and fears that muddle our world and he illuminated them, poked fun at them and at us; he provoked us into questioning our assumptions and the assumptions of others. He invited debate, loved to generate controversy, because — as he told us that night — “The free expression of ideas and opinion is the lifeblood of a free society.”
I refused to uninvite Doug Marlette, and in return, he gave me and those who attended that night an unforgettable lesson in the importance of our First Amendment right and the inestimable value of art as creative scholarship. The event went off with only minor complications, the chairs being the greatest and the sparseness of protesters being the least.
Doug Marlette helped me understand that life is all about creating meaning in everything we do and say. Having a reason to work is much more motivating than having a paycheck for work. Speaking up for those whose voices go unheard is more important than speaking up for self-promotion. Making a difference is more rewarding than simply being different.
After that night, I decided that although I couldn’t draw, I would be creative: I would spend the rest of my life working on redrawing the world around me so that it was better for as many people as possible. That’s why it is such a privilege to be back at Emory, at the Office of University-Community Partnerships, asking the hard questions, creatively seeking collaborative responses to the forces trying to degrade our neighborhoods and our future.
As I see it, if courageous inquiry is to lead anywhere beyond the lawns of this great institution, then the cartoonist had it right when he said: “At our best, like any artist, we should respond with passion and feeling, simplicity and directness. With some skill and luck … we may hit on something. We may occasionally get in touch with that which can move us deeply …the stuff of dreams.”
Sadly, the inspiring cartoonist, the winner of dozens of awards and the friend I looked to as a guide for my conscience, lost his life in a car accident on July 10. He had been on his way to help high school students in Mississippi stage a play based on his comic strip, Kudzu. Just two months earlier, he had sent me this e-mail:
“Sam, I remember the Anne Frank brouhaha and stacking chairs with you. It’s the only manual labor I’ve done in twenty years … Congratulations on finding meaningful work. And I mean that — doing work that is meaningful to you is something to be grateful for. I’m proud of you. Doug Marlette”
Thank you, Doug, for drawing me into the big picture. And I’m sorry about those chairs.