Billy* asked, “Is there a ‘Hot Chocolate with Warren’?”

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, November 16, 2011

Detail from a thank-you note “Coffee with Warren” columnist received from the late Bil Keane, creator of the widely syndicated cartoon, “The Family Circus.” Drawing by Bil Keane

The world has lost one of its most wholesome and entertaining cartoonists.

Bil Keane, creator of the wildly popular “Family Circus” comic strip, died of congestive heart failure on Nov. 8 in Paradise Valley, Arizona, his home. He was 89.

Although I never sipped coffee with Bil in person, he and I did have a very special exchange of correspondence. That happened some years ago, soon after I began writing these “Coffee with Warren” columns. Let me tell you about it.

First, however, a bit of background on “The Family Circus.”

The top-rated single-panel cartoon – begun by Bil in 1960 but, in recent years, drawn and written by his son Jeff – is about an average American family, made up of Mommy and Daddy, their four children, three pets and the grandparents, and the heart-warming interplay of daily events that weave their lives together.

One of the four children is named Billy, a rambunctious young boy blessed with insatiable curiosity. Routes and time lapse in his movements from place to place – and in the movements of the other characters, too – are typically indicated by dotted lines. Back to Billy in a moment.

For one of my columns, I had written an open letter to Bil suggesting he create a poster using dotted lines for the following scenario in a day in the life of Daddy:

From the moment Daddy gets up in the morning till he retires for the evening, everywhere he goes and everything he does requires that he read or write a note, skim a newspaper, compose a letter, check out the price of gas at the pump, etc., till at the end of the day, he reads a bedtime story to his kids.

“You no doubt have twigged onto the point of all this by now,” I said to Bil: “the importance of literacy in our society – we cannot carry on a normal day's activities without being able to read and write. Every point along the meandering dotted line of Daddy's day was associated with the written word.”

Addressing in particular the importance of adult literacy, I concluded my open letter to the award-winning cartoonist: “Bil, if you have not done so already, how about using your artistic gifts to promote literacy?”

Much to my amazement, my column actually found its way onto Bil Keane’s desk in Paradise Valley.

Within two weeks I received a hand-written reply from him saying he’d give the idea some thought. With his letter he included copies of several cartoon panels he’d published that celebrated the importance of reading in general.

But what really caught my attention was a small figure of Billy* in the lower right corner of the note, right next to Bil’s signature. Young Billy, not into coffee yet, is looking up hopefully and asking, “Mommy, is there a ‘Hot Chocolate with Warren’?”

The letter was signed, “Love from the Family Circus, Bil Keane.”

And our love back to you, Bil. Thanks for sharing the hugs and happiness of everyday family life. To quote one of your favourite sayings, “A hug is like a boomerang – you get it back right away.”


*After this column was published, my observant son Reg informed me that the cartoon character I've long identified as "Billy" in Bil Keane's note, above, is actually not Billy, but his brother "Jeffy." Faces are similar, but the clue is in the hair: Jeffy has wavy hair, while Billy has smooth hair with a cowlick. —Warren

© 2011 Warren Harbeck

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