Gentle soul with a pointed pen

1919 - 1999

November 17, 1999|By Neil A. Grauer

TOM FLANNERY used to say emphatically that mankind could "be divided into the conformists and the critics." He decisively placed himself among the latter -- and leveled his criticisms of political and social inequities with cartoons of remarkable grace and style.

Mr. Flannery, a longtime editorial cartoonist for The Sun and The Evening Sun, who died last week in his sleep at his North Baltimore home, was a short, soft-spoken man with such a gentle sense of personal humor that the vehemence of his political opinions sometimes came as a surprise.

No shoot-from-the-hip curmudgeon, he was a cartoonist of rare erudition, basing his beliefs on omnivorous reading.

He was not shy about telling his cohorts on the editorial page when he thought they were all wet -- yet to young colleagues he could be gracious, generous with praise.

Mr. Flannery's immediate predecessors on The Sun's editorial page were artists of enormously different manner: Edmund Duffy, whose cartoons were fierce and furiously slap-dash, and Richard Q. "Moco" Yardley, whose simply drawn and wickedly whimsical cartoons made him a local institution.

Editorial writer, columnist and author Gerald W. Johnson once wrote that Baltimoreans regarded Duffy "with the uneasy delight that a zoo keeper has in a particularly fine Bengal tiger; a municipal asset, unquestionably, but everyone shuddered to think what would happen if he ever went on a rampage."

Many Baltimoreans never fully appreciated that in Mr. Flannery they had just as impressive a municipal asset, albeit not one given to rampages.

He was as independently minded as Duffy and Yardley and a finer artist than either of them.

During World War II, he was stationed with the Army in London and worked for the military publication Yank, located in the building of the Evening Standard, home to the legendary cartoonist David Low.

Every day Mr. Flannery walked down corridors lined with framed Low cartoons.

(Years later, he would recall ruefully that many of them had been stolen by the end of the war -- and how he hadn't taken any.)

Mr. Flannery said that his experiences on Yank permanently altered his drawing style, which had been strictly pen-and-ink before the war. Like Low, he became a masterful manipulator of a brush.

Mr. Flannery's deceptively simple lines undulated and flowed with subtle variation, and his skill at creating caricatures with a couple of deft strokes was extraordinary.

In the early 1960s, he was one of the few cartoonists who could do a superb likeness of the impossibly handsome John F. Kennedy with a minimum of lines.

He then would embellish his drawings with elegant applications of graphite, employing a small, broad stick of the same substance that fills a common pencil, providing shadings and tone usually not possible in the photoengraving process then used by most newspapers.

He gave local affairs as much attention as national and international events. Tom Flannery's contributions to The Sun's editorial page --and to its readers' edification --were in the finest traditions of the cartoonists' art.

He left a legacy of which his paper and successors can be proud.

Neil A. Grauer is a Baltimore-based writer and caricaturist.

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