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Cartoonist's character lives on in Jim Shumaker

By ROBERT FRIEDMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 18, 2000


Jeff MacNelly is dead, much too soon. But Shoe lives on.

And, thank goodness, so does Shu.

Most fans of the Shoe comic strip, which MacNelly created after having established himself as a prodigy of editorial cartooning, probably didn't realize that the Shoe character was based on a real person -- and quite a character at that.

Jim Shumaker already was a legend when he became MacNelly's first newspaper editor, at the old Chapel Hill, N.C., Weekly. MacNelly's genius was so obvious that even the newspaper industry couldn't have ignored it forever. But Shu gave MacNelly's career a crucial head start by recognizing the talent of a frustrated art student who was in the process of dropping out of the University of North Carolina.

I knew Jeff only slightly, but we shared the kinship of being part of Shu's cult. MacNelly probably was the most famous acolyte, but an entire cadre of middle-aged pundits, Pulitzer winners, multimillionaires, titans of industry and plain old working stiffs have made regular pilgrimages back to Shu's cluttered fire hazard of an office on the UNC campus, only to be reduced to insecure schoolkids under his baleful gaze.

And every new academic year brings a fresh crop of Shu groupies. Warren Beatty in his prime never had as many beautiful young women regularly queued at his door, hoping for an audience.

Of course, there are plenty of students and former students who stay as far away from Shu as possible, especially if they've missed a deadline or given him a lame excuse or waltzed into his classroom five minutes late. Shu had almost quit throwing erasers at miscreant students by the time I started teaching next door to him. I think there was an OSHA investigation or something. But he had no shortage of other ways of conveying his disapproval.

Recognizing talent and character -- and the lack of same -- and cultivating those worth cultivating: That's what teaching and editing are all about. Nobody has a better ear for language, or a better nose for BS, than Shu.

MacNelly had a good ear and a good nose, too, plus an artist's eye, and he created something immortal. He also had the nerve and talent to attempt to capture Shu's essence. I wouldn't even try, except to suggest this: Jason Robards made an excellent Ben Bradlee in All the President's Men, but he could play Shu without even having to do much acting.

MacNelly's death was tough on Shu. Aside from mourning for a friend, he had to put up with being interviewed by a procession of people -- especially the TV foofs -- who would have been banished from his line of sight under any other circumstances.

But, as Shu reassures me every time we speak, he's "still vertical."

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