Thursday, August 25, 2011

Mort Walker on Being a World War II Veteran at Mizzou

Mort Walker, Untitled (Beetle Bailey© cartoon), 1950, ink drawing with transparent plastic overlay (dot screen), 7 ¼” x 18 7/8”. Gift of Mort Walker and Walker Studios, courtesy of Kings Features Syndicate, Inc.
Mort Walker and Walker Studios, Untitled (Beetle Bailey© cartoon), 1970, ink drawing with transparent green plastic overlay (dot screen), 5 ¾” x 18”. Gift of Mort Walker and Walker Studios, courtesy of Kings Features Syndicate, Inc.
Before I get wrapped up in new and upcoming acquisitions, I need to discuss an artist who is particularly near and dear to the Student Center’s heart. More specifically, for this blog I will be talking about ink drawings by the celebrated alum cartoonist, Mort Walker, whose name has been omnipresent at the new building since its opening. Graciously, Walker and his Studio has given the Unions (for the Student Center’s use) four mock-ups of Beetle Bailey© comic strips, two of which are shown above. These are hand-drawn versions of the strips that Walker would have sent to his publishers for reproduction and distribution.

Rather than aimlessly trying to provide a full account of Walker’s life and work, I thought I would couch these drawings in Walker’s accounts of being a student and war veteran at Mizzou. Walker first arrived at the University in 1943, but was drafted only a semester later (at 20 years old) to serve in World War II. While not strictly autobiographical, Walker based his most beloved character, Beetle Bailey©, on a childhood friend, David Hornaday, with whom he shared many life experiences. Indeed, Walker and Hornaday grew up together, joined the same fraternity at Mizzou (Kappa Sigma), and were drafted into the military at the same time.

Like his creator and his clumsy counterpart (Hornaday), Beetle© was also a college student who joined the military not of his own accord (in Beetle’s© case it was an accident). Originally, Beetle© was just a lazy, trouble-making college student at Rockview college, a fictional school based on Mizzou. However, in 1951, at the onset of the Korean War, Walker decided that Beetle© should join the army and this choice transformed an amusing (but somewhat unsuccessful) comic into the hugely popular phenomenon that we know and love today. The first featured drawing from our collection (1950), shows Beetle© as a student at Rockview, and the second (1970) shows Beetle’s© pup-pal, Otto, in the afterglow of having visited the campus.

Mort Walker, Savitar 1943, pg. 41. Although only here a short time in 43, Walker made several illustrations for the Savitar yearbook. They reflect an increased military presence on Mizzou’s campus.
In World War II Walker served in Italy as an Intelligence Officer in charge of a platoon of American GI’s, a company of Italian soldiers, and a German Prisoner of War stockade. Having become accustomed to giving orders, returning to a university setting in 1946 was understandably a difficult adjustment. Consequently, he often butted heads with the Dean of the Journalism School. In fact, eventually Walker was forced to leave the Journalism School due to a disagreement over prerequisites. Nevertheless, Walker still managed to make straight A’s and become the editor of the student run humor periodical, Showme, which famously held staff meetings in ‘The Shack’. Walker’s cartoons for Mizzou publications in the following years (namely in Showme and the Savitar) illustrate what it may have been like being a veteran on campus:

Mort Walker, Savitar 1947, pg. 84.
Mort Walker, Showme, 1948, v. 4, pg. 16. 
Here, Mort (on right) and a friend walk in 
downtown Columbia, feeling pressure to 

Indeed, being a World War II veteran at Mizzou, or any college for the matter, would have been challenging. The G.I. Bill, which provided federal funding for veterans to go to college, surged enrollment at the university to an untenable level. Starting around 1945, MU could no longer safely house all of the students in its ward. The G.I. Bill brought in 2,800 veterans, which comprised 48% of the entire student population at that time (The Missouri Alumnus, May 1946, pg. 4)! Doing the best they could with limited resources, the university used army surplus materials to build districts of emergency barrack-style housing for displaced students, affectionately dubbed ‘blue-campus’.

Savitar 1947, pg. 10.
Bird’s-eye view of the temporary 
dormitories, Savitar 1947, pg. 11.

This was a bittersweet homecoming for veterans, who were the main demographic populating these make-shift neighborhoods (so much so that one neighborhood was nicknamed ‘G.I. city’). According to Alumni Magazine, in early 1947 there were 2016 single veterans housed in 63 temporary dormitories, 199 family units built for married veterans, an emergency cafeteria erected on the ROTC field, and 12 emergency classrooms assembled on various campus locations (two on the lawn in front of Jesse) (Alumni Magazine, Feb 1947, pg. 5). Although Walker—as a veteran, Missouri resident, and former student—would have been in the first priority group for student housing, 1947 and 1948 would have been turbulent years for everyone on campus. Walker obviously took this in stride and drew multiple cartoons that specifically satirize the housing/classroom crisis:

Mort Walker, Savitar 1947, pg. 86.
Mort Walker, Showme 1947, v. 4, pg. 16.

Always a trouble-maker at heart, Walker also didn’t pull his punches when talking about the G.I. Bill. Here he critiques the monthly subsistence allowance that it provided:

Mort Walker, Showme, 1947, v. 10, pg. 9.

Mort Walker, Showme, 1947, v. 9, pg. 9.

While certainly Walker made much humor out of the practical hurdles that Mizzou veterans encountered, Walker’s illustrations during this time also reflect some of the psychological difficulties. Initially, many Mizzou veterans—due to age or to the suffering they witnessed during the war—felt out of place upon returning to a civilian environment. Notably, Walker provided the illustration for a story in the Showme by Dran Rabb, titled “Decision in the Spring,” which follows a disenchanted student veteran named Tom. Of Tom, Rabb writes:

He tried—oh God how hard—to open those gates; to join that marching multitude that seemed to ignore him. But they marched on through the days, laughing, playing—making him hate them at times and making him want to join them too—so that for all the gaiety of college, he was as lonesome as a visitor from a foreign land (Showme, 1948, v. 4, pg 13).

Not surprisingly, Walker’s perspective on out-of-place veterans on campus is a bit lighter, as he pokes fun at the advanced age of the freshman class:

Mort Walker, Savitar 1947, pg. 46.
Mort Walker, Showme, 1946, v. 11, pg. 16.

As Walker’s cartoons can attest, humor is the best medicine. Walker’s cartoons put a comic spin on what were surely unsettling times for many Mizzou veterans. Likewise, it is no wonder that Beetle Bailey© is so beloved by individuals in the military, as Walker’s humor provides an outlet for processing their often-stressful lives.

As you probably know, this story ends well for Walker. He graduated from Mizzou in 1948 with a BA in humanities, migrated to New York, and became one of the most successful cartoonists of all time. To see more of Walker’s work on MU’s campus check out Mort’s Grill and the new ‘Shack’ in the Student Center—Mort and his son Neal designed many of the illustrations decorating the walls, as well as the statue of Beetle©, specifically for that space. Additionally, we are currently installing an exhibition space that will exclusively house displays of Mort Walker’s work, stories, and memorabilia.

An afterword:

Thinking about veterans and their experiences on our campus is becoming increasingly important in our time. To hear personal stories narrated by Mizzou veterans from recent wars, check out Vox Magazine

Another useful resource is the University of Missouri Veterans Center

Authored by Niki Eaton, PhD Student, Art History and Archaeology


Walker, Mort. Mort Walker’s Private Scrapbook: Celebrating a Life of Love and Laughter.
            Kansas City, MO: Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2000.

Savitar, Students of the University of Missouri, 1943, 1947.

Alumni Magazine and Showme from 1946, 1947, 1948.

***Click on the images to see them larger!