Cartoonist Gary Cangemi died March 18 due to the effects of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. He was 62. He leaves behind his wife, Nancy, a son, two daughters and two beloved granddaughters, whom he bragged relentlessly about.
The news hit me, and my children, hard — along with a great many in the pro-life community.
“Meet Umbert the Unborn, the world’s first prenatal comic-strip character,” wrote the Register, Umbert’s first home. “He’s feisty, outspoken, lovable and almost ready to take on the world.”
Umbert did just that. One of the most satisfying experiences of my life has been meeting students here at Benedictine College who trace the strength of their pro-life convictions to Umbert. This simple cartoon — recognizing the humanity of the unborn through humor — has awakened countless young people to a lifelong commitment to the right to life.
I was executive editor at the Register in May 2001 when Gary Cangemi and his creation were an answer to prayers.
Our goal was to make the newspaper as much like a “real” newspaper as possible. That meant we needed to have a comic strip. But we wanted to do it right. It needed to be absolutely professional, it needed to be funny, and it needed to be the real deal — not an infographic or religious lesson, but a character-driven, colorful, story-based strip.
We looked but couldn’t find what we wanted. So I could hardly believe my eyes when I opened a package with the first Umbert the Unborn cartoons in it.
It was perfect for the Register. We had created a “Culture of Life” second section with pro-life news and features that help families; it would fit right in there.
We started to get fan mail right away that told us that Gary’s cartoon worked just the way we hoped: Families looked forward to the paper, where their eyes would move from Umbert to the rest of the section.
One letter called the strip “far more than cute, cuddly and lovable. Its cutting-edge theme is creative, timely and cerebral and its humor worthy of the top echelon of cartoonists today.”
A high-school teacher wrote, saying, “I began to leave the Umbert cartoons on my desk in plain view of my students, hoping to spur their concern for unborn babies. It worked, and kids started asking for more Umberts.”
The reason it worked so well was Gary Cangemi. He was a warm, joyful man devoted to his family and proud of all of his graphic-arts work, but, most of all, proud of Umbert.
Those who know Gary know that Umbert and he were a lot alike: feisty and articulate, but filled with constant good humor.
Gary was born and grew up in the Washington, D.C., area, but adopted a new hometown after attending the University of Scranton (Pennsylvania). He served his community as a Boy Scout leader for more than a decade, and he founded the soccer program at West Scranton High School, where he served as a coach for six years.
“My cartoons are not judgmental,” he said in defense of Umbert to one critic. “They are an attempt to get my fellow human beings to be more introspective about themselves. And they are a satiric examination of the disturbed logic which views abortion as women’s health care, completely ignoring the life which is sacrificed.”
“Your rights and your medical decisions are your business,” he continued. “But when you’ve involved, through your own choices, another human person, they become his or her business as well. ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident’ seems pretty clear to me.”
The cartoons were wonderful. Working within the most constricted setting imaginable, Gary’s alter ego did great things — introducing us to the great unborn heroes of the past, bringing other unborn characters into the story, and sharing biblical, scientific and popular culture lessons — but always paying off each strip with a good gag.
It was a privilege to work with Gary while I was at the Register. Thanks to remarkable reporters, the paper did what I consider the best coverage of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks anywhere in our first issue after 9/11.
That issue also has a poignant Cangemi cartoon with Umbert feeling his mother’s pain. During my tenure, Umbert mourned the death of friend-of-the-unborn John Paul II and announced the election of Benedict XVI. And, of course, Umbert was a devoted March for Life proponent.
After I left the Register, my own children continued to love Umbert from afar. Every time the paper comes in the home, someone opens it to Umbert. The kids try to outdo each other at drawing Umbert, and for her 10th birthday a few weeks ago, my youngest daughter hosted a “cartoonist” party featuring an Umbert the Unborn cake.
My children know how Umbert got his name (it was derived from the noted author Umberto Eco), and they know how he got his start (in a Cangemi political cartoon in a Scranton weekly newspaper).
They also looked forward to Umbert’s birth.
“A young boy from Kentucky asked me when Umbert would finally be born,” Gary once said. “I told him that the day when the natural right of all children to be born was guaranteed in law — that will be Umbert’s birthday. It’s a promise I hope and pray to be able to keep in my lifetime.”
Sadly, he did not get to keep that promise.
Gary, we will miss you. May our prayers accompany you to heaven, and may the many young people you have inspired to love the unborn finally see the day when Umbert’s rights are as cherished in law as they were in your heart.
Tom Hoopes is writer in residence
at Benedictine College
in Atchison, Kansas.
He is the author of