Chicago’s Catholic Cartoonist

Jack Higgins is a Pulitzer Prize-winning political cartoonist with the Chicago Sun-Times. He’s also a Catholic, and he and his wife are home-schooling parents.

Jack Higgins has been a full-time cartoonist for the Chicago Sun-Times since 1984. The Pulitzer Prize-winning political cartoonist has traveled the world covering international events and has drawn five political conventions and a Super Bowl.

He got in the business to cover Chicago politics, and drawing local issues is his passion, as evidenced by the title of his new book, My Kind of ’Toon, Chicago Is, which will be published Sept. 28 by Northwestern University Press.

He spoke with Register correspondent Monta Monaco Hernon from his home in Clarendon Hills, Ill., where he and his wife home school their five children.

What led you to become a political cartoonist?

Some kids, when they first become an altar boy, start thinking about the priesthood. That is the way it was for me with my career. When I was 6 years old, a local politician running for re-election recruited my friends and me to hand out leaflets outside the polling place. In Chicago, politics is like sports. In my family, we always talked about politics around the kitchen table. For us, in the spring or fall, it was election season, just like football in the fall is for many families.

When I was about 8 years old, I delivered the newspapers and began taking note of the political cartoons. Most didn’t make sense to me, but I liked that they were addressing what my mom and dad and aunts and uncles were talking about.

As a career, it was never far from my mind. When I was at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., I noticed a cartoonist at The Boston Globe, Paul Szep, who was doing work on mostly local issues. For me, the light bulb went on. What better place for this than Chicago? The desire to draw local issues never died.

How did you break into the business, and how did you come to work at the Chicago Sun-Times?

It’s next to impossible to break into (political cartooning). At the time, there were maybe 200 cartoonists in the country. I knew the only way to get a job was to have a job.

For three and a half years, I drew four cartoons a week for The Daily Northwestern. By some luck, a friend of mine sent my stuff to her uncle, a columnist with the Boston Herald, who passed it along to his editor. He gave me a one-time shot of drawing the Democratic National Convention of 1980 in New York City. I had to pay my own way, but it worked out very well. All of my cartoons ran on page one. The Chicago Tribune noticed and wrote a story about it. Not long after, I wound up with a freelance position at the Sun-Times.

What is it like working on the editorial staff of a secular newspaper?

The (editors) know I am traditional, and they accept it. They don’t seem to have a problem at all. It’s not like it was 20 years ago, when the editor of the paper would refer to me as “a good Catholic boy,” with the implication being that I am a bumpkin. I rode that out. For the most part, the paper has been good about what I do. They treat it like an opinion column. It is, after all, a signed piece of work.

How has your faith shaped your work as a political cartoonist?

It is what you are. From birth, it is how you are raised ... how you learn from your parents. There is no taking it apart one way or the other. In thinking about any topic, it’s like an examination of conscience before a confession. I was raised Catholic and raised by my parents to see things a certain way. I have certain beliefs that might influence me, about abortion, for example, and I don’t see how you can separate yourself.

One of your recent cartoons commented on the University of Notre Dame’s invitation to President Obama. How did you generate the idea for this cartoon?

It was one of those things I heard about and thought, “How could this be?” The university is more excited about advancing its name and putting its status in the university community above the core belief. The university is named after Our Lady, and it’s obvious that she doesn’t represent abortion, but motherhood.

If I see something so outrageously stupid or infuriating, or something that just gets my blood going, I start jotting down my ideas in the early hours of the morning. The image on the wall of the Notre Dame library is known as “Touchdown Jesus.” He is already getting eclipsed by football. And now, Jesus is getting ignored altogether in the most vile way. This is the university named after his mother. The visual for the cartoon came to me. The best cartoons need no explanation at all.

How does the public react to your work?

I think people are surprised sometimes when they see the cartoons in the paper. They are happy there is another voice out there. You tend not to see it on the networks. You might see it on local talk shows, but to see it in the newspaper, they find it refreshing. It gives them a little bit of strength, like there is an ally out there. I am delighted at the response I get.

What was your upbringing like, from a faith perspective?

I came from a fairly large Irish-Catholic family. My parents went to Mass daily, particularly after my brother died at the age of 12 from a brain tumor. This made them look more deeply into their faith. We began praying the Rosary nightly. (They looked for a) stronger communication with God for guidance. That had an effect on the whole family. Not everybody, but I would say that for 90% of the family it strengthened their faith.

Why did you and your wife, Missy, decide to home school?

From the time they were very young, it was obvious to us that our children were very bright. When I was in grammar school, there were 64 kids in each classroom. I wasn’t a good student until high school — and only then because I missed a lot of school after I got run over by a car. I spent a lot of time in the hospital. I had to sit still and look at books. I remember that grammar school for me was a lot of time spent looking out the window. In a school that large, that is no reflection of the teacher. You can’t hide in a classroom of three or four brothers and sisters.

What was it like to win the Pulitzer Prize?

I had only been at the paper four and a half years. I won on the merit of my portfolio, but they highlighted a cartoon I had done about Dan Quayle. It was (drawn) after it was found out that he spent time in the Indiana National Guard. There was this picture of him with his buddies in their military uniforms with their jeeps, posing with their golf clubs like they were ready to tee off. I took this famous photo by Nick Ut (from Life magazine) of the Vietnamese kids with their clothes all burnt off. I had him (Quayle) standing off to the side with a golf ball ready to tee it off, and he says, “Mind if I play it through?”

I feel very fortunate to have won it at such a young age. What would be an exclamation point on my career came at the beginning of my career, but I won’t give it back. They can’t have it.

Monta Monaco Hernon writes

from La Grange Park, Illinois.