LEGACY: Remembering Clyde Wells
It took less than 24 hours for editorial page cartoonist Clyde Wells to publish art that served as the most effective salve for a collective national pain, in the wake of the space shuttle Challenger disaster. It was an event that played out on live TV on January 28, 1986. Everybody was watching when the space shuttle tore apart 73 seconds into its celestial flight. In the days before the Internet & smartphones, space travel was science fiction come to life. But by 1986, even those live launches and landings were received with a touch of “meh.” Then the explosion, played out in real-time on television, rocked the nation. Considering what we’ve been through since, and the many ways you can find it (or it finds you), one would think very little would surprise us these days. Back then, it was a gut-wrenching experience that warranted a national address from President Ronald Reagan during primetime. How do you begin to wrap your head and heart around such a national tragedy? Clyde Wells knew the answer.
In the following morning’s Augusta Chronicle, Clyde’s editorial cartoon was a simple panel of the space shuttle Challenger, fully intact and floating in space towards a pair of very large and welcoming hands. It was so simple and yet so very effective. It remains the cartoon of his I remember most.
Clyde Wells died on Monday at the age of 87. According to his obituary, NASA asked Wells if they could use his panel for the cover of its memorial service for the astronauts lost in that disaster; Wells approved the request. There are countless other pieces that were so positively received over his 27 years at The Augusta Chronicle; no doubt everyone has a favorite (or in my case, favorites-plural). His obituary reminds us that he was a syndicated cartoonist, appearing in more than 400 newspapers at the height of his career. And yet, so many of us will remember the hyper-local or state-level zingers that had us scrambling for the editorial page.
Wells had no problem speaking his mind, or letting his pen put it to newspaper print. I own his books and remember getting one autographed at the old B. Dalton Bookstore in the Augusta Mall. We met several times thereafter. He would eventually join a cast of local voices who came in to record rotating commentaries for broadcast during my time at Channel 6. If memory serves, he’d have a piece of art drawn up just to have alongside his presentation for maximum effect.
Wells’s career & work serves as a great and easy-to-follow timeline that captures a very specific period of time in the CSRA. The “good, bad and ugly”, as it was, from the early 70’s to the late 90’s. He was just local. It’s something that’s lost with the slow extinction of hometown newspaper journalism into a more national headline aggregator put to print and web. As sharp as he was, Wells was never mean. It’s no wonder that even the targets of his cartoons knew it just came with the territory (which explains why the foreword to one of his books was penned by President Jimmy Carter, whose face got plenty of attention in his panels).
I’m no editorial cartoonist or even a decent doodler - however, if forced to try my hand for Wells’s obituary, I’d have a pen bearing his name, strong and dripping ink…pushing a not-so-mighty sword to the ground against a backdrop of some of Wells’s “greatest hits." It’s an adage come to life, just as Clyde Wells showed us time and again over the course if his career.
Funeral information can be found here.
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