Drexel Dwane Powell, Jr.
Drexel Dwane Powell, Jr., 74, devoted husband, father, grandfather, uncle and much-loved friend to those who knew him in a nearly 50-year newspaper career or through music and friendship, passed away peacefully April 14, 2019 after a hard fought battle with cancer that inspired those around him for nearly 3.5 years.
He was a gentle soul, merry in his outlook on life, devoted to his family, loyal to his friends and courageous through his final day.
Dwane and the love of his life, Jan, recently celebrated 48 years of marriage. They celebrated their good fortune in life with an adored daughter, Devon, her loving husband, Greg Penny, and a much-loved, energetic 6-year-old grandson Myles, all of Vermont. They survive him, along with many special nieces and nephews, treasured in-laws, and it should be said, a great number of dear friends. Dwane is predeceased by his parents, Drexel D. Powell, Sr., Minnie L. Powell and his brother, David R. Powell.
"Those who knew him" is a phrase that, in Dwane's case, included literally hundreds of thousands of people. That was, in part, thanks to his 35 years as the editorial cartoonist at The News & Observer, during which time he won numerous local, national and international awards and recognitions. These accolades include the National Headliners Award, the Plothound Award, Overseas Press Club Award, the Raleigh City of Arts Award, the Rex Babin Award for best local editorial cartoons, induction into the North Carolina Journalism Hall of Fame and in 2018, recognition from Gov. Roy Cooper with the state's highest honor, the Order of the Long Leaf Pine. To Dwane's delight, Cooper presented his Long Leaf Pine Award in person at one of Dwane's favorite spots, the historic Players Retreat in Raleigh. Dwane donated some portraits of Carolina Hurricane players to the "PR," and they hang over the Dwane Powell booth in the restaurant's main room.
Throughout his career, Dwane was an influential and beloved mentor to many with creative pursuits. He so enjoyed sharing his passion by encouraging individuality and recognition through the arts.
It was a remarkable career in many ways, with an unlikely beginning on a farm in southeast Arkansas growing up during the Jim Crow era. Being raised in this environment strongly formed Dwane's progressive opinions about social justice and racial equality.
Tall, charismatic, and always athletic, he was a football star in high school, and played at the University of Arkansas at Monticello until a shoulder injury — he liked to explain it by showing off the scar — ended his athletic career, and for a while, his academic career as well. But he returned to college after a few delays and graduated with an Agri-Business degree in 1969. After college, Dwane passed on the opportunity to take over the family farm due to a chance encounter with a newspaper editor who suggested that Powell, a renowned doodler, consider looking at cartooning professionally. And so began a unique career path that took Powell to newspapers in Hot Springs, San Antonio and Cincinnati before finding a home in 1975 at The News & Observer. His editor at the conservative leaning Cincinnati paper once asked him, after flinching at a liberal cartoon, "Dwane, are you reading our editorials?" to which he responded, "Yes, but you knew my political leanings, So why did you hire me?". Their response, "Well, we thought you'd be malleable." Soon after, Powell left Ohio to pursue the opportunity with the N&O, a capital city newspaper, where he had more creative freedom and a ripe local and national political climate for his talent to flourish.
Dwane's friends count his caricatures of them among their most prized possessions. He would doodle them at parties, and once, in a tony Raleigh restaurant, covered a linen tablecloth with drawings of his companions. "You know," said the waiter, "you really might make some money at that."
By far, Dwane's most memorable cartooning subjects were two men on opposite ends of the political spectrum — Republican U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms and four-term Democratic NC Gov. Jim Hunt. Helms was caricatured by Dwane with a "No" stamp on his desk and huge horn-rimmed eyeglasses. Hunt was pictured always with a large comb stuck in his hair. Both Helms and Hunt had numerous Powell cartoons in their collections and on their office walls — often asking for the originals even after their staff members had criticized the cartoons. Dwane received copious amounts of mail during his career from both ecstatic and not-so-ecstatic readers, he often heard from politicians on both sides of the aisle, including several presidents after they'd been 'stuck' by his pen.
On Dwane's last day at The News & Observer in 2009, Hunt walked from his office in downtown Raleigh to The N&O building on McDowell Street to bid Powell farewell. He brought with him a cartoon he'd taken off of his office wall. Hunt also strongly urged The N&O's editors to print a Powell cartoon at least part-time. (No one who had worked for the newspaper could remember anything like that ever happening before.)
Not long after Dwane's retirement, Ned Barnett of the editorial page did just that, bringing him back to do cartoons in the Sunday edition. Response was immediate and strong, and Dwane kept doing the cartoons until just a few weeks before his death. It also should be noted that Dwane's cartoons were an important part of The News & Observer's Pulitzer Prize Gold Medal for its series on the hog industry. It was the highest honor the newspaper has received.
In retirement, Dwane was also honored with an exhibit (still on display) at the City of Raleigh (COR) Museum and a brief biography was made for the UNC-TV series, "The Muse", which was later picked up by 12+ PBS channels around the US. Additionally, Dwane donated his body of work, including upwards of 15,000 original cartoons, to the Southern Historical Archives at the Wilson Library at UNC.
The honors and recognition he received were rare for editorial cartoonists and reflected Dwane's longstanding popularity and influence.
But there was much more to Dwane than his remarkable career. He had an exceptional talent for photography, with many of his images displayed at various businesses throughout North Carolina. Dwane often arose with the daybreak to "get the worm" and catch a glimpse of the sunrise upon the Raleigh skyline with his lens. He was an accomplished guitar player, and was also quite adept on several other instruments. He sang and wrote many songs over the years, some in collaboration with his closest friends. One of the greatest joys of Dwane's life was creating music and sharing that together with his daughter, Devon. She would often add vocal harmonies to whatever recordings he was working on and he beamed when they were making music together. He also played in a number of bands over the years often recruiting new members he'd meet in chance encounters, many of whom became the best of friends. Among these musicians were many cartoonists from all over the country (and Canada), who shared their similar talents in both art and music. These friends, like family, gathered at Dwane's home in his final days to fill the air with music which offered him and his close-knit family much solace.
Dwane was diagnosed with peritoneal mesothelioma in 2015, an extremely rare form of cancer, but he refused to let the illness define him. Initial treatment was difficult, but he came through it remarkably well. His doting wife, Jan, called him "Superman" to friends. And following his early treatment, Dwane returned to riding his bike regularly, traveling the world, drawing weekly cartoons for the N&O, and religiously followed his exercise regime at the Alexander YMCA.
Dwane was determined to keep going despite his illness and to a strong degree, he did. Over the last year, he spent a lot of time telling his friends how much they had meant to him, and that his illness had taught him that he needed to express those feelings, and to tell people he loved them. He met those goals and his friends marveled at his honesty and his bravery. Those memories will for them be his most enduring legacy. His gentle, kind, upbeat and loving disposition will be intensely missed by all who were blessed to know him.
In honor of Dwane, we encourage you to find an adventure in each day, to live with passion and stay connected to what brings you joy. This is how Dwane lived and it inspires us to do the same.
There will be a visitation and celebration of life, open to the public, at the City of Raleigh Museum on Friday, April 19 from 4:30-6:30pm with time for prepared remarks from anyone who would like to share at 6pm. There will be a separate, private gathering by invitation at a later date.
In lieu of flowers, donations in honor of Dwane can be made to the City of Raleigh Museum at: 220 Fayetteville Street, Raleigh, NC 27601 and/or the Southern Historical Archives at: UNC Libraries, Attn: 575830-Powell, PO Box 309, Chapel Hill, NC 27514.
Published in The News and Observer on Apr. 17, 2019.