Drawing on His Talents
by Earlene Chelf
Throughout his 34-year career, Bill “Whitey” Sanders, a Western Kentucky University alumnus, produced thousands of editorial cartoons, which appeared in over 200 newspapers and magazines.
Sanders’ cleverly drawn cartoons communicated a very powerful message. To make them thought provoking, he would often “go for the jugular,” using cartoons to call attention to social injustices, politicians’ foibles or any subject that piqued his ire.
For those who found Sanders’ cartoons on target, his work was highly praised. He received numerous honors and accolades, such as the Kansas City Civil Liberties Achievement Award, the International Salon of Cartoons Award, the National Headliners Award and the Wisconsin Civil Liberties Special Award.
Others, particularly politicians, thought his cartoons too pointed, and Sanders, his editors and publishers received many letters expressing anger and outrage — and even some threats. Sanders was undeterred by his detractors, explaining that the role of a good editorial cartoonist is to elicit emotion, and to make people think.
Sanders referred to himself as a “horsefly on the back of public officials.” A Saturday Review critic said Sanders’ “keenly honed editorial commentaries can make the opposition gag on their breakfast.”
Like many of his colleagues, Sanders did not set out to be an editorial cartoonist. While at what was then Western State Teachers College, he was an All American football player, setting many NCAA quarterback passing records, unsurpassed for years. The Cleveland Browns drafted Sanders, but he never played a game. Another draft — the U.S. military’s — sent him in a totally different direction.
To avoid serving in the Korean War, Sanders had joined the Army ROTC. After graduation, he was surprised to learn that enlistment in the ROTC simply postponed active duty, and he served first in Korea and then in Japan. An invented journalism background enabled him to finagle an assignment with the Army’s newspaper, Pacific Stars and Stripes.
One day, while passing through the post library, Sanders accidentally knocked a book on the floor. It happened to be a book of cartoons by one of the all-time great cartoonists, Herb Block. After looking through the publication, cover to cover, he realized that this was what he wanted to do — express his opinions and ideas through cartoons.
Sanders has demonstrated considerable talent in other artistic areas like music. Having been raised in the South, he possesses a particular love for the Blues and Dixieland jazz, music rarely heard while in Wisconsin, where he worked for the Milwaukee Journal for 24 years. To fill that void, he started his own band, playing banjo and singing at a small Milwaukee club.
In addition, his skill as a sculptor is evident in the bronze statue of legendary coach E. A. Diddle on prominent display in Diddle Arena.
Over the years, Sanders has shared his political philosophy through his cartoons. That legacy will live on for many generations because his work resides in many repositories around the country, now including the Whitey Sanders Collection at the Kentucky Museum.
The Kentucky Museum’s upcoming exhibit, titled “U.S. Bank Bill ‘Whitey’ Sanders: Comic Opera,” will feature about 50 cartoons, some photographs and a few three-dimensional items. It officially will open Saturday, Oct. 26, as part of WKU’s 2002 Homecoming, and it will remain on view through September 2005. To showcase as many of the cartoons as possible, the exhibit content will be changed twice, once in 2003 and again in 2004.
Sanders’ work can also be found in the Cartoon Research Library at Ohio State, The Museum of Cartoon Art in Connecticut, The University of North Carolina and The Wisconsin Historical Society. The presidential libraries of Harry S. Truman, Lyndon Johnson, John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon include Sanders’ work in their collections. The Milwaukee and National Press Clubs also have significant collections of his work.