The Pilot Who Made People Smile

There are many ways for a cartoon to be great, not the least of which is to be funny, and Leo was one of the most consistently funny cartoonists we ever had…”

by Dave Riley

IN THE PAST WE HAVE PAID TRIBUTE in this blog to notable humanitarians, pioneering scientists, and just plain folks who dedicated much of their lives to making a difference for the better in the lives of seniors and others. Leo Cullum doesn’t fit into any of those categories. His contribution to mankind was to make our life a little more fun from time to time in an era when so much of what goes on around the world is dark and forbidding.

Leo Cullum was born in Newark, New Jersey in 1942, grew up in North Bergen and graduated from College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he majored in English. After graduation he became a marine aviator who flew 200 missions in Vietnam, and when his service was over, he became a pilot for TWA and later for American when the lines merged.

Cartooning was a lifelong interest with Cullum. “As a kid, I always drew stick figures of battle scenes, eventually evolving into full-figured fights of cowboys and Indians,” he told a New Yorker web site interviewer. “My mother studied fashion illustration at the Newark Fashion Institute. She thought I had talent, which was a big motivation.”

Eventually he began filling his time on layovers in New York and Rome and Paris by learning the art of drawing cartoons. He got some how-to books and worked at perfecting his craft.

Predictably, his first cartoon sale was to a relatively unknown publication, Air Line Pilot Magazine. Eventually he had cartoons printed in Argosy, Saturday Review and Sports Afield but he gradually worked his way to the pantheon of the cartoon world, the New Yorker, where he published 819 cartoons over the years.

NEW YORK TIMES WRITER WILLIAM GRIMES described Leo Cullum as “a cartoonist whose blustering businessmen, clueless doctors, venal lawyers and all-too-human dogs and cats amused readers of the New Yorker for 33 years.” But Leo was never snarky or mean. He seemed to have great affection for his characters even when he chronicled their imperfections.

He did so many medical cartoons that he eventually collected them into a 128-page book entitled “Suture Self.”

“It’s a good thing you’re here,” the ear doctor says to the patient. “I just punctured your eardrum.”   He often kidded doctors about their fees.   “Your wallet,” a doctor says to a patient. “It’s got to come out.” A man stands at the head of the line to get into heaven. “Would you step aside?” St. Peter says. “They’re still doing CPR.”

He excelled at animal cartoons, mainly, I think, because he endowed them with such recognizable human traits. “I love the convenience,” says the buffalo talking on a cell phone, “but the roaming charges are killing me.”

A cat in a stylish executive business suit sits at a desk while talking on the phone. “Can I call you back?” he says. “ I’m with a piece of string.”

ParrotOne chicken to another in the barnyard: “The body is 82 percent broth.”

He had at least a half-dozen cartoons that played Duckon the venerable argument, which came first, the chicken or the egg. In one, which has no caption, a chicken and an egg are each defiantly holding up one of those “We’re Number 1” gloves that fans wear to football games.

“There are many ways for a cartoon to be great, not the least of which is to be funny, and Leo was one of the most consistently funny cartoonists we ever had,” Robert Mankoff, the cartoon editor of the New Yorker, told Grimes.

“Leo Cullum was one of the most consistently funny cartoonists that I knew,” New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast said in an interview with the blog Comic Riffs. “Even when he used the traditional set-ups of magazine cartoons, his take on them was always fresh.”

SOME YEARS AGO MY DAUGHTER KATHLEEN, who is the most creative gift giver I know, finally had to ask for help. She phoned Mrs. R. from the state of Washington to find out Lunchwhat dad might like for Christmas. A book of Leo Cullum cartoons, Mrs. R. told her. She sent one and since then I have purchased more Cullum collections, including the medical collection, Suture Self, Tequila Mockingbird (animal cartoons), and Cockatiels for Two (bird cartoons). Whenever I get one, I have to ration how many cartoons I read at a sitting, lest I open a book in the morning and have it all read by evening.   Six months later I can take the same collection out and enjoy it just as much.

Leo Cullum retired from airline piloting in 2001 and spent his days with his family in Malibu, California, cartooning. In a 2009 interview, the Cartoon Bank Blog asked Cullum, “Has living in that famously wealthy, celebrity-filled environment supplied you with good ideas for cartoons?”

“I have not gotten one cartoon idea from living in Malibu…seriously. It’s not a funny place. Pretty, but not funny. Maybe that’s the problem. Too much sun and blue water.”

I never met Leo Cullum, but I wish I had. He lived only an hour or so away. If his cartoons are proper evidence, I suspect he was filled with humanity, the quiet kind that feels no need to advertise itself.

In October of 2010 he died of cancer at age 68. He was not a household name but when he passed on, hundreds of newspapers all across the country and beyond carried his obit. When I Googled “Leo Cullum” shortly after his death, I got more than 300,000 results.

Leo Cullum was survived by his wife Kathy, a former flight attendant whom he had met on a flight to Boston, and by his daughters Kaitlin and Kimberly.

Cartoons copyright by the estate of Leo Cullum. Reproduced by permission T/Maker. Further reproduction is not permitted.

Dave Riley

About Dave Riley

Growing Old Isn’t For Sissies is about aging. It’s stories of how some older people achieve remarkable successes, how some people make the lives of others better, and how all seniors have hurdles to face — maladies, loss of loved ones and more.