Those who read Ed Ashley, The Blade's editorial cartoonist throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, knew this about him: He was one of the most underappreciated artists in the country.
Not because he lacked talent. His cartoons were wonderful, funny, whimsical, and you were never baffled about what he meant.
But he never got the notice he deserved. That's because he was anything but a self-promoter. Friends knew him as a slightly shy, quietly zany man, modest and unassuming, warmly generous with praise for other cartoonists - and insecure about his own work.
His cartoons, some of us knew, were better than he ever realized. Whenever I praised an especially good cartoon of Ed's in The Blade, he would say something like: "You liked that? It ain't so great. I just wish I had the talent Mike Peters (of the Dayton Daily News) does."
He thought Bill Mauldin was the greatest editorial cartoonist of all. A few months ago, I took Ed, long since retired and living in Milan, Ohio, a new Mauldin biography. He stayed up all night reading it.
"Can't thank you enough," he wrote me at 4:30 a.m., when he finished it. "What with that, I'm almost glad to be an insomniac."
Ed had a secret that perhaps only three people ever knew. His very best cartoons never saw print, because nearly all concerned the strange obsession I was partly responsible for: Communist Albania.
He and I became friends soon after I came to Toledo in 1978. Once, Ed, Ralph Johnson, The Blade's editorial director, and I started talking about Albania, then possibly the world's most closed society, sealed off from the rest of the world by the bizarre Communist dictator Enver Hoxha. I had studied Eastern Europe, and told him tales of Albania. Ed was fascinated.
The next morning, I found an elaborately shaded cartoon on my desk. It showed a demonically grinning figure standing in a snowdrift, toes poking out of old shoes, clutching an ancient pistol and a sign: "Welcome Comrade to New Improved Albania!"
Today it hangs in my home office. An equally funny one is in my office at Wayne State University. Actually, I could cover my walls with them. Ed got on a tear, sometimes doing half a dozen cartoons a day about his imaginary, strange, sinister, and loopy Albania.
Ed's Albania bore little or no relation to the real country, even the now-vanished world of Enver Hoxha. But it was hilarious. For years, every so often I would get a letter in the mail, and in it would be one or more wacky Albanian cartoons.
He addressed me as "Tosk," one of the two main Albanian tribes. We established the secret Toledo-Albanian Friendship Society, with a slogan I believe Blade outdoor columnist Steve Pollick coined: "Zufti Nog Hummo."
We said that meant "the future belongs to tinned mice."
For the last few years, Ralph Johnson and I tried to visit at least once a year, and take Ed and his wife Audrey out to dinner. They lived in Port Clinton, in a narrow, vertical house where they had, the last time I was there, 27 cats.
Two years ago, Audrey died. Ed moved to a dreary retirement apartment in Milan, where he grew up in the 1920s. He was lonely. He still drew hilarious cartoons, but he missed having an audience, and people to talk to.
We last had dinner a little over a month ago. "You and Ralph are always bright spots in my waiting-to-croak existence," he wrote me the next day. He complained about deer hunting, which he said "is just not a sport. Now if the deer could shoot back …
"Aw, hell. Albania uber all-ess, whatever that means," he signed off. He had served in World War II, and I'd seen in his apartment what I thought could have been his service revolver.
One night, soon after he shipped off a last half-dozen cartoons to me, the loneliness got to be too much, I suppose. He was 88.
He told me a couple of months ago that he was sure nobody remembered him or his work. Nearly everyone he had known was dead, he said, "and nobody will give a damn when I am gone."
Well, Ed, I've got news for you, something I should have told you more often when I had the chance. Your pen had pretty much every politician in Toledo and the nation dead to rights.
But on this, old friend, you were dead wrong. Friendship uber alles, Ed. Ralph and I won't forget what that means.
Jack Lessenberry is a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade's ombudsman.
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