Cartoonist Donald Holmes chronicled Harford's rise

July 06, 2011

Way back when I was a kid, there was a time when I seriously considered being a cartoonist.

Over a span of many years, there were times when a lot of different potential careers were at the forefront of my thinking, to include astronaut, baseball player, fisheries biologist, genetics engineer, radio disc jockey, garbage truck driver, electric bass player, ship's captain (and crewman) and so on and so forth. As a result, I spent a fair amount of time reading about these various professions - back in the days when that meant going to the library because there was no such thing as an Internet - and learned a bit more about each of them than is probably healthy.

For purposes of today's discussion, though, cartoonist is the profession at hand. In the job I hold these days, I'm privileged to work with two cartoonists, Chelsea Carr and Nils Johnson, both of whom have the talent, in excess, for capturing emotion and expression with a few strokes of a pen. It's a talent I lack, but because of my interest in the work, I feel keenly aware of what it takes to draw a striking cartoon.

Or maybe that's just wishful thinking on my part. After all, it really doesn't matter who you are, a good cartoon hits you like a found dollar or a sudden cool breeze on a hot day.

This all comes to mind for me because I got a call the other day from Gert Holmes, wife of the late Donald Holmes, who started drawing cartoons for The Aegis when I was still interested in coloring books. I had the good fortune to meet Mr. Holmes on the occasion of an anniversary of his time with this newspaper and went to interview him at the business that provided his, and his family's livelihood, Acme Signs. It also coincided with my transition to a position at the paper that would involve working with our editorial cartoonists.

An unrepentant smoker of substantial build, who sported a tattoo dating to his time in the Navy and being of questionable skill when it came to combing his hair, Mr. Holmes cut an imposing figure.

His physical presence, coupled with a gruff demeanor, belied a man with an artist's eye, a mischievous sense of humor and a weakness for helping just about any charity that asked.

On occasions when I would go to the sign shop, Mr. Holmes (actually, I knew him as Donald Sr.), often as not could be found agonizing over a detail on a sign, or one of his cartoons. Generally, it was the kind of detail most people wouldn't recognize.

He was a man of detail, though, and many of his cartoons were detailed, some would say to a fault. On the subject of the health of the corn crop in Harford County one summer, he drew a cartoon featuring a strange contraption that, had it existed in real life, would function to tell if a corn stalk was as high as your eye, or an elephant's eye, by the Fourth of July.

Other times, simplicity ruled the day, as was the case when a young assistant state's attorney, Joseph I. Cassilly, ran against his boss one year. The legendary cartoon shows the elected prosecutor kicking Cassilly in his wheelchair down the courthouse steps. There are some who credit the cartoon with helping put Cassilly in office, one he holds to this day.

Other effects of his cartoons were less obvious. He once told me his sign business took a hit when certain development interests felt pinched by cartoons depicting residential developers as bulldozer jockeys poised to plow under forests and farmland.

And it pained him to lampoon the local fire and ambulance service as it began the transition from a strictly volunteer operation to an endeavor that pays some emergency responders. After all, he had been active in the volunteer service, especially on the ambulance side, for many years. Still, he penned a biting cartoon showing a construction crew removing the word "volunteer" from the side of a firehouse.

So before all these memories make me forget, let me get back to what brought them all to the forefront of my head: a phone call from Gert Holmes, Donald Sr.'s wife.

She wanted to let me know there will be a show starting this weekend of Mr. Holmes' cartoons, along with those of John Stees, a longtime cartoonist for The Sun and The Evening Sun. The show, put together by the Harford County Historical Society, will be at the Liriodendron Mansion at 502 W. Gordon St. in Bel Air and opens this Sunday at 1 p.m. It will be open to the public this Sunday until 3 p.m. and Sundays thereafter through Aug. 14 from 1 to 4 p.m.

Mrs. Holmes tells me she made available to the historical society roughly 2,300 cartoons penned by her husband and she's not sure which ones will be on display.

I also happen to know that Mrs. Holmes, though often critical of the time her husband spent on cartoons instead of the sign business, was very proud of her husband's cartooning. She went so far as to clip out every one and pair it with the inspiring article or articles. The collection fills many volumes, and spans a key time in Harford County's history as it made the transition from rural to suburban.

The exhibit that opens this weekend promises to offer a comic look back at what Harford County was like back when and how it got the way it is now.

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