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Editorial cartooning may be one of American journalism’s best contributions not only to public debate, but also to graphic arts. From the time of Benjamin Franklin, the pen has often been mightier than the sword. Thomas Nast carried on the tradition in the 19th Century, but the art came into its full flower in the 20th Century, with such famous cartoonists as Herblock, Bill Mauldin, Jeff MacNelly and Pat Oliphant.

One of the most talented artists ever to wield a pen was Hugh Haynie, whose cartoons graced the editorial page of The Courier-Journal from 1958 until his retirement in 1995.

Haynie was a Virginian by birth and a proud product of Jefferson’s alma mater, The College of William and Mary. He came to Kentucky after working earlier in his career in Richmond, Va. Even though it has been more than 15 years since new cartoons by this artist appeared in the newspaper, many of his best are republished annually, especially the Christmas Eve cartoon. More about that later.

Yesterday, the Frazier History Museum opened a new show displaying some of the finest of Hugh’s cartoons (and it runs through Jan. 26, 2014). Although most of his work was donated back in the 1990s to the archive at William and Mary, his son, Judge Smith Haynie, has assembled an estimable group of his father’s best works. The Frazier will display these.

At one time in the 1970s, Hugh’s work appeared in more than 80 newspapers across the country, as well as in magazines like Time and Newsweek. He was known for his incisive views of the issues of the time, including the Cold War, the Civil Rights struggle, the Vietnam War and Watergate. At the time of Hugh’s retirement, Barry Bingham Jr., the former publisher, remarked that he always regretted killing a Haynie cartoon of Richard Nixon flushing himself down the toilet after he resigned the presidency in 1974.

But Hugh drew scores, perhaps hundreds, of cartoons that drew the ire of President Nixon, and for that reason, Hugh was one of those media figures who wound up on the notorious enemies list. But many of the people he lambasted admired his work, among them Mitch McConnell, who took pride in showing visitors framed Haynie cartoons featuring the Louisville Republican.

My own attraction to newspapers came in large measure because of my early exposure to Hugh Haynie’s work. At the time he retired, I wrote this about those days in The Courier-Journal:

“It’s not an exaggeration to say that I was first drawn to this newspaper not through its dramatic photos, nor because of its incisive coverage of regional issues, nor because of its provocative editorials. No, it was Haynie, plain and simple. And in the eyes of this youngster, the world of John F. Kennedy and Charles De Gaulle, Nikita Khrushchev, Martin Luther King, Mao Tse-Tung and Barry Goldwater, LBJ, Adlai and Ike, was understandable through the bold images and challenging humor of a man who seemed as imposing as the men and women he drew.

“I was not alone. My friends and I used to talk about Hugh’s cartoons on the school bus; we copied them with tracing paper, always despairing of our own lack of talent in comparison to his. For five or six years, I clipped his cartoons each day and carefully filed them away; I got this idea from my grandmother, also an avid newspaper reader, who displayed Hugh’s cartoons in her St. Matthews kitchen.”

Kentucky has always had a healthy respect for editorial cartoonists. Three of Louisville’s—Robert York of The Louisville Times, Joel Pett of the Lexington Herald-Leader and Nick Anderson of The Courier-Journal—won Pulitzer Prizes for their work.

Even at a time when newspapers across the country have eliminated editorial cartoonists—either through layoffs or attrition—you can still get provocative commentary every day. Here in Louisville, attorney Marc Murphy has been drawing wonderful cartoons for The C-J on a freelance basis since 2007. (By the way, all the remuneration he receives for his work goes to support an inner-city youth basketball team that he coaches.) Books editor Scott Coffman has also been a contributor of cartoons. And in Lexington, Joel Pett, who was also a devotee of Hugh Haynie’s work, is still at it.

But the prospects are cloudy. Nick Anderson, who left The Courier-Journal in 2006 to be the chief cartoonist at The Houston Chronicle, reports that the membership in the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists was fewer than 50, a fairly dramatic drop. From my experience, however, investing resources in cartoonists pays off. For instance, Nick Anderson sought us out when he was a student at Ohio State University back in the late 1980s and began submitting freelance work over the transom. Even though we had Hugh Haynie on the staff, Nick was hired as a summer intern and then returned after graduation as a cartoonist. For more than four years, The C-J had two cartoonists, an unusual bounty for a newspaper our size, but the investment paid off: In 2005 Nick would win that Pulitzer.

The centerpiece of the Hugh Haynie retrospective at the Frazier is the original of his Christmas Eve, 1961 cartoon, which has been republished on The Courier-Journal’s editorial page every December 24th since then.

The first time Hugh drew that cartoon, it was rejected. He was working for the Atlanta Journal in 1955, three years before he came to The Courier-Journal. His bosses shuddered at the cartoon, fearing it might offend advertisers.

The climate in Louisville was quite different. So in 1961, Hugh resurrected the idea, and sketched the now-familiar image of a middle-aged man sitting in a room filled with brightly wrapped presents. Above his head is the face of Jesus, and the man ponders: “Now, let’s see, have I forgotten anyone?”

He took it into the office of Courier-Journal editor and publisher Barry Bingham Sr., where the response was very different: “Fine, good!” he declared. And it has been a favorite ever since. Thousands of copies are displayed around the country on the walls of living rooms and ministers’ offices.

That is only one of the images that will be on display at the Frazier. Be sure to stop by to see what truly great editorial cartooning can be.