Gene Payne

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Gene Payne's pen could be a potent weapon. It prodded and skewered politicians, and over a span of six decades, it enlightened Charlotte Observer readers - and made them smile.

Eugene Gray Payne Jr., whose editorial cartoons for the Observer won a 1968 Pulitzer Prize, died Thursday. He was 91.

Payne was hired as the Observer's first political cartoonist in 1958 and was the newspaper's first full-time cartoonist from 1960 to 1971. In an era with fewer media voices, cartoonists carried particular clout in the cities and regions where they worked, and Payne was a household name in Charlotte.

"He had a loyal following of readers, particularly people who were interested in local issues and local government," said former Observer publisher Rolfe Neill, who was a reporter when Payne was hired at the Observer in 1958. "They saw him as a conservative guy who could keep people honest."

Payne won the Pulitzer for a group of 10 cartoons, including some that focused on the Vietnam War and civil rights - and how they competed for the country's attention. One depicted President Lyndon Johnson seated on a bus and holding a screaming baby labeled "Vietnam War." In the caption, a bus driver addresses the president: "Dr. King says, Would you please move to the back of the bus?"

In May 1968, the Observer newsroom Teletype, surrounded by reporters and editors, clattered out Payne's name as a Pulitzer winner. His response was: "How about that?"

Said Jack Claiborne, a former Observer associate editor: "Gene Payne was fast. His pen was fast and his mind was fast."

He was not, however, a celebrated speller. Said Claiborne: "He always said, 'To hell with a fellow who could spell a word only one way.'"

Payne, a Charlotte native, grew up just three blocks south of the Observer's uptown building. Payne's father, Gene Payne Sr., died in an auto accident when Payne was 3. His mother, Sarah Brockenbrough Payne, had to work while Payne stayed at home with an aunt.

His mom made sure he had art supplies, and Payne amused himself with drawings. When he was about 6, he drew Joe Palooka, an old comic strip character. It made him happy, and he decided then and there that he wanted to be a cartoonist. He practiced by copying old comic strips such as "Toonerville Trolley" and "Maggie and Jiggs."

Payne studied art at Syracuse University, then enlisted in the Navy. He later enlisted in the Army Air Corps and became a World War II B-29 pilot. Discharged in 1945 at Fort Bragg, he returned to Charlotte.

He would later tell colleagues that in 1946, he wasn't hired when he first applied to the Observer. Instead, he worked as a commercial artist, then a sales manager for Foremost Dairies.

In 1957, he began submitting freelance cartoons to Pete McKnight, then the Observer's editor. The next year, Payne was hired. In addition to cartoons, his duties included retouching photos and drawing maps.

Payne moved to the Birmingham (Ala.) News in 1959 to be its illustrator and editorial cartoonist, then returned to the Observer a year later - this time to be a full-time cartoonist - for a successful 12-year run. He won several national awards, including the Sigma Delta Chi Award and the Pulitzer, the Observer's first.

Payne preferred producing cartoons that were funny, although one of his best-known and most popular drawings was a somber effort. It was a cartoon Payne drew after the death of British elder statesman Winston Churchill in 1965. His fingers raised in the "V" for victory sign, Churchill - with hat and cane in hand - toddled off the earth and into the hereafter.

The Observer received so many requests for the cartoon that it gave away more than 8,000 copies.

Payne left the Observer again in 1971 and joined WSOC-TV as an editorial cartoonist.

For the next seven years, he drew cartoons, and wrote and directed documentaries for the station.

After deciding that his work was best done on newsprint, he returned in 1978 to the Observer, where he drew four cartoons a week.

He later drew one cartoon a week and was 90 when his last cartoon for the Observer was published in 2009.

"He's a heck of a nice guy - always very generous, supportive and encouraging," said Observer editorial cartoonist Kevin Siers. "And I was very jealous of his artistic ability."

Payne is survived by his wife, Harriet, daughters Patricia Green and Sharon Boisson, and sons Eugene, David and George.

- By Gerry Hostetler and Peter St. Onge, The Charlotte Observer
Published in Charlotte Observer on Oct. 15, 2010
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