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    'Snuffy Smith' artist dies at 84

    Tampa resident Fred Lasswell began drawing the popular strip in 1942 after the death of its creator, Billy DeBeck.

    By CRAIG BASSE

    © St. Petersburg Times, published March 5, 2001


    TAMPA -- Fred Lasswell, the cartoonist who drew Snuffy Smith for nearly 60 years, died Sunday morning of a heart attack in his Sunset Park home overlooking Tampa Bay.

    He was 84 years old.

    The strip appeared, without interruption, 365 days a year for eight decades, making it one of the longest-running cartoons. It appeared in 21 countries in 900 newspapers, including the St. Petersburg Times.

    Only two other strips were in syndication longer: Katzenjammer Kids (1897) and Bringing Up Father (1913).

    When Billy DeBeck, who created the strip in 1919, died in 1942, King Features Syndicate asked Mr. Lasswell to take over. Mr. Lasswell, a young Tampa artist, had been hired by DeBeck a decade earlier as "a lettering man" for the strip, originally called Take Barney Google, For Instance, and later Barney Google and Snuffy Smith.

    With the job had come a place to live -- above the garage in the servants' quarters of DeBeck's "Villa Florentina," his showplace home in the Snell Isle section of St. Petersburg.

    Only 17 years old at the time, Mr. Lasswell had dropped out of Hillsborough High School to go to work.

    "I was a combination errand runner and cartoonist on the Tampa Daily Times, selling papers at night and working on the side at the R.E. McCarthy Advertising Agency in the Tampa Theater Building," he recalled in 1990.

    His grandfather, W.D. Lasswell, had moved to Tampa in 1909 from Missouri. His parents followed after he was born in 1916. When his father decided in the early 1920s that he wanted to grow grapes, the family moved to Gainesville so he could attend the University of Florida.

    Mr. Lasswell said he believed he inspired DeBeck's ideas for the comic strip about fictional Hootin' Holler, N.C., with the backwoods Florida background he acquired during those days with his family on 10 acres along Hogtown Creek. There was no electricity or plumbing; a hound dog pestered the chickens.

    Putting their heads together, they came up with such phrases as "Time's a wastin'," "shif'less skonk" and "bodacious" that found their way into the mouths of Snuffy Smith characters like Snuffy's wife, Loweezy, their son, Jughaid, and Parson Tuttle, Ol' Doc Pritchart and Sheriff Tate.

    As World War II approached, Mr. Lasswell left DeBeck. Rejected for service by the Navy and Merchant Marine, Mr. Lasswell found a way into the war. He was in Africa with Pan American World Airways as a radio operator when DeBeck died.

    In turning over the strip to Mr. Lasswell, the syndicate urged him to "keep it looking Billyish but put your own feeling into it," he said.

    Mr. Lasswell consequently made Snuffy, as the original "yard bird" of the war, a hero of the enlisted man. Later, he "fathered" Tater, the perennial tot.

    After more than 60 years, comic-page mountain man Snuffy surrendered his whiskey still to the forces of temperance in 1996.

    "Living with Snuffy, Loweezy and his people, I had the feeling they were restless to move on to greener pastures and a different century," Mr. Lasswell said. The cartoonist also said pressure from the other characters in the strip finally got to Snuffy: "They've harassed him to death, and he's had it."

    Sheriff Tate just gloated. Parson Tuttle claimed a miracle.

    In 1964 the National Cartoonist Society named Mr. Lasswell both Outstanding Cartoonist of the Year and Best Humor Strip Cartoonist. In 1984 he received the Elzie Segar Award, named for the creator of Popeye, for outstanding contributions to cartooning. He received the award again in 1994 on the 75th anniversary of Barney Google and Snuffy Smith.

    Mr. Lasswell also created Bunky, a comic strip and Sgt. Hashmark, for Leatherneck magazine.

    A member of the American Society of Agricultural Engineers, he invented a citrus fruit harvester, according to an official biography.

    In later years, Mr. Lasswell became known as "Uncle Fred" through a series of instruction videos about drawing. He maintained his own Web site, www.unclefred.com. He gave drawing lessons in Hillsborough schools and at the Tampa Museum of Art. He also created a braille comic book called This is Charlie.

    Though Snuffy, Loweezy and the rest of Hootin' Holler were firmly rooted in the past, Mr. Lasswell always had an eye on the future. Now the strip is digital. Mr. Lasswell e-mailed his daily cartoons to King Features Syndicate, the company said in its Web site.

    Mr. Lasswell leaves behind his wife of nearly 36 years, Shirley, 78, four children and two grandchildren. Tampa police said Mr. Lasswell's family was out of town at the time of his death and a caretaker was tending to him. The caretaker called 911 Sunday morning.

    His family gathered at the home Sunday and did not wish to speak to reporters. His Jeep Grand Cherokee with the license tag "Snuffy02" was in the driveway.

    His modest ranch-style home on Longfellow Avenue in South Tampa and his nearby office on N Westshore Boulevard were both relics of a different time, with their early 1960s architecture. So was Snuffy Smith, some might argue.

    On the King Features Syndicate Web site, Mr. Lasswell said Snuffy Smith remained a popular strip because "the heart and soul of a comic strip are the characters."

    There is no word on whether, with the death of their second creator, the adventures of Snuffy and the rest of the folks in Hootin' Holler will continue.

    - Some information in this obituary came from the Associated Press and from a story by Times staff writer Mary Evertz.

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