Draper Hill, the long-time Detroit News cartoonist and eminent cartoon historian, passed away on May 13. In addition to his decades of work as a staff cartoonist, he published biographies of Thomas Nast and James Gillray, and was long considered the “institutional memory” of the AAEC.
“He wanted to increase the awareness of people and get them more engaged with what's around them,” said his son, Jon. “He wanted to challenge them to get more involved and interested in the political landscape. He wanted to push the envelope.”
Other survivors include his wife, Sarah; a daughter, Jennifer; two grandchildren, Jack Hill and Charlie Hill; and two brothers, Jack and Peter.
Born July 1, 1935, in Boston, Draper Hill was raised in Wellesley Hills, Mass., and graduated from Harvard University in 1957, where he was on the staff of the Harvard Lampoon for several years.
“When still an undergraduate at Harvard,” wrote fellow cartoonist and historian R.C. Harvey, “Draper invited himself, unannounced, to visit Rockwell in his studio. Rockwell was sufficiently impressed by his surprise visitor that he gave Draper a pair of his sketches.”
He later studied art at the Slade School of Fine Art, University College London, on a Fulbright grant.
Hill began his career as a cartoonist at the Patriot Ledger and Worcester Telegram in Massachusetts and worked at the Commercial Appeal in Memphis, Tenn., before joining The News in 1976.
Some of his most striking pieces skewered political figures and situations, including Detroit's provocative mayor, Coleman A. Young. “His cartoons were usually a gentle form of humor, but he could draw blood when he felt it was warranted,” said Jeffrey Hadden, Detroit News deputy editorial page editor. “As an editorial writer, I sometimes envied his ability to more strongly convey a point with a few well-placed pen strokes.”
As former Detroit News Editorial Page Editor Tom Bray notes, he expertly captured the late mayor in his cartoons. His caricature of Young as a “grinning Cheshire cat was apt without being mean.”
The drawings were “extremely sophisticated and had deeper meaning, so you would have to study it,” said Ben Burns, former Detroit News executive editor and director of the Wayne State University journalism program. “He was capable of taking a famous piece of art and converting that into a cartoon about something going on locally. He stimulated people to think.”
In an introduction to an exhibition in the 1970s, Hill offered: “We are still the Peeping Toms at the palace keyhole; still expected every now and again to hit (responsibly, of course) just a wee bit below the belt.”
He was also a well-known figure in Metro Detroit, deeply involved in its cultural institutions. As Bray notes, “He cared about Detroit. He defended it from its detractors while chastening it through his cartoons.”
In 1983, he earned a Guggenheim Fellowship to work on a biography of political cartoonist Thomas Nast. His previous works included “Mr. Gillray, the Caricaturist,” a biography of James Gillray.
A past president of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists, Hill wrote its magazine's history column and won Germany's Thomas Nast Prize in 1990, said Secretary/Treasurer V. Cullum Rogers. “He was a repository of history. Among working cartoonists in the U.S., he probably knew more about the field than any other.”
His successor at The News, Henry Payne, called him “one of the deans of American cartooning.” His office was a small museum of cartooning, festooned with historical examples of cartoons and signed originals from his colleagues.
Payne described him as an “encyclopedia of cartoon knowledge” as well as a “talented draftsman in his own right.”
“Each of us is unique in our own way, but Draper was without peer in his passion for cartooning, its practice and its history,” wrote Harvey. “In his devotion, hand and mind, to his profession, Draper successfully ignored the ordinary distractions of everyday life. He was not, for example, attentive to his attire: he looked, usually, as if he'd just thrown something on and missed, somewhat—his tie notoriously askew, sometimes half over his dress shirt collar, half under; shirt-tail untucked and extending below the bottom edge of his jacket; hair combed in front but not in back, where a night's tossing and turning had produced a proudly flourishing rooster-tail. 'Sloppy' is too strong a word for Draper, and 'mussed' implies a conscious effort; but 'disheveled' is about right.
“Shopping for vintage books in musty second-hand book stores was an obsession with both of us, and we always devoted the convention's free afternoon to forays into the hinterlands of the host city, looking for used-book stores and treasure. On a couple occasions, Draper and I went together, and you'd think we'd be scrabbling over some rare tome on cartooning that we'd discovered jointly and both wanted. Not so. Draper usually had them all already. 'Here's something you need,' he'd say, pointing, in this case, to John Leech's Pictures of Life and Character (1887) in two volumes, reprinting Leech's cartoons from Punch, 1842-64. 'They're in great shape,' he added; 'you really ought to have them.'”
After being forced into retirement in 1999, Mr. Hill often exhibited his work and lectured.
“He claimed the paper's officials never told him, explicitly, the reasons for their actions,” wrote Harvey. “I suspect they simply wanted a younger and perhaps less scholarly visual commentator, and, judging from the man hired to replace Draper, a more conservative point of view.
“For a time, Draper was without medical benefits as well as employment, a circumstance that, after 23 years on the payroll and with the debilities of age and illness looming, was sad to the point of tragic, tragic to the point of criminal. His colleagues were alarmed and angry. Said Joel Pett, at the time president of AAEC: 'It's a shame Draper was treated with such a lack of dignity. He's a really dedicated practitioner of the craft and just about the kindest and most generous gentleman it has been my pleasure to know in the business.'
“But after a while, Draper was able to work out a satisfactory arrangement with the paper that left him somewhat less than destitute ...”
Kevin “Kal” Kallaugher remembered in his affectionate salute to Draper: “One of my best memories from the AAEC took place at a business meeting some years ago. Draper had been a fixture at our conventions for decades. One of his unofficial duties was to prompt the dim-witted officers on stage (including me) from his perch in the front row on official protocol and parliamentary procedure. (A role now happily occupied by the esteemed Cullum Rogers). Due to illness, Draper was, at the time I'm recalling, missing his first ever AAEC convention. The silence from his empty seat was deafening. Late in the meeting, Ben Sargent stood to recognize our absent colleague. He made a motion asking the AAEC to officially declare Draper Hill as 'Present' at that convention. The motion passed unanimously. Draper's streak remained unbroken. I will miss Draper. The wonderfully brilliant warm and witty Draper. To me he will always be 'present' at the AAEC conventions.”
—Sources: The Detroit News, R.C. Harvey. JP Trostle and Cullum Rogers contributed. For more about Draper Hill, visit RCHarvey.com, Rants & Raves, Opus 242.