Memorable people few would recognize

“One day your life will flash before your eyes. Make sure it’s worth watching.”

― Gerard Way, American singer, songwriter, and comic book writer.

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A life spent chronicling a cross section of life’s cross roads has lots of perks.

It has permitted me to shake hands with U.S. Presidents, astronauts, and heroes everyone knows, and connected me with inspirational individuals whose name most have never heard. It has also paved the path to places I would not have gone otherwise.

Like landing me a seat in at least two courtrooms. One, the U.S. Supreme Court press gallery in Washington D.C. to witness law argued at the highest level in the land as it applied to events on which I had reported. The other, in a district courtroom, seated beside my attorney as the judge looked in my direction and said, “Will the defendant please rise.” Also, for points of law as applied to events bearing my byline. 

Both great stories, but for another installment. It’s the people that’s on my mind this week. Famous people and places have been fun, but among the best memories are those little know individuals whose lives inspired others. People like Barry McWilliams.

I’m betting a cheeseburger you’ve never heard of him.

I met Barry in the early 1980s. Sadly, I learned only last week that he passed away more than a year ago at his home outside Whitehall, Montana, at the age of 79.

Barry McWilliams was born in 1942 in North Hollywood, California. According to his obituary bio, he grew up in what he referred to as an “immigrant home” where three families shared a small three-bedroom house with wall-to-wall mattresses — a period he reportedly reminisced about later in life as a simpler time with his sister and cousins.

His love of literature led him first to teach English, but that was not his last calling. Following a couple of other endeavors, he ultimately sold ads and shot pictures for The Madisonian, a small weekly newspaper in Virginia City, Montana.

He began drawing a weekly editorial cartoon, “J.P. Doodles,” while working for The Madisonian. Soon after creating Doodles, he “split a week’s worth of firewood for his family, bought a week’s worth of food, spent his last $20 on gas, and headed out across Montana on a late-November night with packets of cartoons.”

With that beginning, McWilliams ultimately created the cartoons from four continents for more than 1,500 newspapers. I signed on at the East Texas Light in Center in late 1982.

Barry McWiliams in the 1980s about the time he was in Center, showing Center Elementary students how to draw cartoons and talking to them about small town USA. (Barry’s Cartoons photo)

The J.P. Doodles character was a likable farmer type who dealt with small town issues like making ends meet, bad roads, high taxes, raising kids, local schools, and the weather — life as we know it. McWilliams got his inspiration by traveling the country, visiting hundreds of small elementary schools, and cartooning about what he saw.

Barry came to Center on one of those jaunts shortly after I started running Doodles in the newspaper. I remember shaking his hand and thinking of him as a younger version of the older J.P. Doodles character in his cartoons. He arrived driving a highway-worn long-wheelbase pickup truck and wearing jeans, a plaid flannel shirt, cowboy hat, and boots. And that’s the same way he dressed when he engaged attentive young minds, including my daughter Robin, at Center’s Elementary School, that day by teaching kids how to draw cartoons while talking to them about life in small towns across the U.S.A.

I ran his cartoons in Center in the 80s, at The Boerne Star in the Hill Country in the 90s, and The Monitor in Naples when I was there.

His monthly batch of cartoons always included a “group message” that chronicled his travels. Plus, every so often, a handwritten personal note inquiring about how his cartoons were working. Other times, he called from distant regions inquiring about what was happening wherever I was. Asking about any local issues to share as cartoon fodder.

True to the obit bio I read last week, Barry “was a character. Unique. Unlike anyone you’ve ever met. He was an adventurer who hitchhiked around Saudi Arabia during the first Gulf War to interview soldiers, joined a government trade mission to Asia, declared himself ‘shipwrecked’ on Flinders Island off the southern coast of Australia, and helped mastermind America’s biggest cattle drive in over a hundred years. He could walk into a restaurant and sit there for hours talking to complete strangers who quickly became friends.”

Not mentioned in the internet obit bio was an experience I recall him writing about in his weekly notes. A northern Alaskan stint spent in a cabin accessible only by boat or plane, enduring weather with daily high temperatures ridiculously below zero. He still brought J.P. Doodles to life from there, sending cartoons back to civilization on the weekly float plane that also brought him supplies.

The obit concluded by announcing a celebration of life for Barry at the Whitehall Community Center. The public was welcome.

I’m grateful to this crazy business for the people it’s connected me with. It has put me in touch with many incredible people. People like Barry McWilliams.

I have no doubt the celebration of life for him in Whitehall highlighted what Barry obviously lived for, a life worth watching.

—Leon Aldridge

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Aldridge columns are published in these Texas newspapers: The Center Light and Champion, the Mount Pleasant Tribune,  the Rosenberg Fort Bend Herald, the Taylor Press, the Alpine Avalanche, The Fort Stockton Pioneer, and The Monitor in Naples.

© Leon Aldridge and A Story Worth Telling 2023. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided full and clear credit is given to Leon Aldridge and ‘A Story Worth Telling’ with appropriate and specific directions to the original content.

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