Rufus A. "Ray" Gotto, a Clearwater retiree and the creator of two popular syndicated cartoon strips during the 1950s, died Sunday (Dec. 28, 2003) at Grace Health Care in St. Petersburg. He was 87.
Born in Nashville, Mr. Gotto came to Clearwater in 1975 from Binghamton, N.Y., where he retired as a professional cartoonist. While he worked many years in the cartoon department of Sporting News magazine, a weekly baseball tabloid, he is best known for his creation of two sports-figure cartoon characters: Ozark Ike (1945-1953) and Cotton Woods (1955-1958).
Fred Reed, former news editor of Coin World and vice president of Beckett Publications, an acknowledged cartoon and sports memorabilia collector for more than 40 years, commends Mr. Gotto's work in several articles.
"The talented artist left indelible marks on sports continuity strips in the newspaper dailies and Sunday supplements with his two star ballplayers, Ozark Ike and Cotton Woods," Reed wrote.
Mr. Gotto's first character, Ozark Ike McBatt, was created while he was serving in the Navy during World War II in Washington, D.C., as an illustrator for Navy instruction manuals.
As a comic strip about a dumb but likable rural mountain boy, Ozark Ike has been compared to Li'l Abner. Mr. Gotto drew the strip in the bold, clear, cartoon style reminiscent of Al Capp, creator of Abner and Ham Fisher of Palooka.
While Mr. Gotto's cartoon wasn't nearly as successful as the other two strips, it did achieve a circulation of 250 papers. Because of this cartoon strip, real-life baseball player Gus Edward Zernial, who played in the American League from 1949-59, was nicknamed Ozark Ike.
After the war, Mr. Gotto sold Ozark Ike to promoter Stephen Slesinger, who also managed Red Ryder, King of the Royal Mounted and the merchandising of Winnie the Pooh. Slesinger, in turn, sold the cartoon to King Features Syndicate. It debuted in King publications Nov. 12, 1945.
Mr. Gotto abandoned drawing on the strip in 1954 and went on to create Cotton Woods, which featured another sports star. That strip lasted three years. After that, Mr. Gotto went on to a successful career working for Sporting News magazine.
Even though the creator was gone, Ozark Ike continued until 1959 under King Features cartoonists Bill Lignante and George Olesen.
Gotto was a member of the National Cartoonist Society. He is survived by a nephew, James B. Ashley of Los Angeles. Sylvan Abbey Funeral Home, Clearwater, is in charge of arrangements.