COLUMBIA — If bronze statues could smile, Beetle Bailey would be grinning over his mug of beer.
Mort Walker’s long-lived cartoon character now has his own 44-cent stamp, which was issued July 16 and formally unveiled at MU on Friday. The 11 a.m. ceremony was held next to the statue designed by Walker and sculpted by his son, Neal Walker, in front of Reynolds Alumni Center.
“Genesis of the idea (for Beetle Bailey) came from this university,” said Bill Janocha, Mort Walker's assistant, who appeared on the cartoonist's behalf. “His roots are really here. He’s a proud Kappa Sigma.”
Walker got his bachelor's degree from MU in 1948, and Janocha emphasized that much of the inspiration for the cartoon strip came from the time Walker spent at the university. Beetle Bailey was based on one of Walker's fraternity brothers.
The setting of the ceremony was ideal. The statue — Beetle sits at a table with a cold one, chin in hand as he gazes across Conley Avenue — is near what was once the site of The Shack, a beer joint frequented by Walker during college and featured in the comic strip's early days. Walker was the editor of a student humor magazine called “ShowMe” and used to hold staff meetings at The Shack. It burned down in 1988, and Reynolds Alumni Center was built in 1992.
At 11 a.m. sharp, Pete Millier, director of the Mizzou Botanic Garden, which was celebrating its 11th anniversary on Friday, welcomed the audience and thanked the U.S. Postal Service for holding the dedication ceremony at MU. Shortly afterward, the Beetle Bailey mascot arrived, driven in a World War II Jeep and cheered on by a crowd of at least 100 people.
“Welcome, Beetle,” Millier said over the din of the audience. Army ROTC cadets marched from inside the alumni center to the Beetle Bailey statue to present the colors. Cadet David Adams, commanding officer of the Cannons Crew, read out the pledge of allegiance.
Walker, 82, lives in Stamford, Conn., and could not attend. But Janocha, his friend of 23 years, told the crowd that the cartoonist sent his regards by doing a special drawing. When a garden staff member held up the drawing, audience members laughed: It showed Beetle Bailey saying, “Mort sends his best wishes,” and Sergeant Snorkel replying, “Is that the best he could do?”
Earlier, Janocha asked the ROTC cadets on guard to lower their caps and hide their eyes "in the spirit of Beetle Bailey." Surprised at first, the cadets complied, and the audience applauded in appreciation.
In his speech, Janocha urged people to “go out and buy newspapers,” because newspapers do a great service by continuing to print the comic strips that entertain and instruct. But, he added, the space provided is shrinking day by day.
Janocha emphasized Walker’s affiliation with the university. He said that after graduating, Walker worked in New York, doing magazine panels and quickly came up with the character, Spider, who was later renamed Beetle Bailey. For the first six months, the cartoon was a college strip set at a fictitious university, Rockview University, which, according to Janocha, was MU. Early strips contained vivid references to the university including drawings of The Shack, the Quad (meaning Francis Quadrangle) and Memorial Union.
It was Janocha’s first time in Columbia, though he said hearing stories from Walker about the university so frequently almost made him feel like an alumnus. “I’m absolutely delighted to be here,” he said.
Janocha has been working on the imagery and three-dimensional artwork being done at the new student center and promised that Walker will be here in October for the opening. The Beetle Bailey cartoon strip turns 60 in September, and Janocha said it was Walker’s genius that had helped the strip stand the test of time.
“It’s the only strip of its type that is still being drawn by its creator, for 60 years,” he said.
When it was his turn to talk, Chancellor Emeritus Richard Wallace said it is remarkable how Walker has given back to the university. “When he learned about the Ellis Library’s collection of humorist literature, he donated many of his original sketches to the library,” Wallace said.
Such is his love for his alma mater that Walker also auctioned some of his sketches and donated the proceeds to MU, Wallace said.
David Martin, district manager of the U.S. Postal Service’s Gateway District, discussed the similarities between stamps and cartoons.
“Like stamps, comic strips often tell a story through humor, adventure, fantasy and sometimes drama,” Martin told the crowd. “Today, we commemorate one of our country’s most beloved comic strips and dedicate a stamp that represents a unique part of American culture.”
Martin was the last speaker of the ceremony, and it was left to him to call upon Janocha, Wallace and Columbia postmaster Cindy Bolles for the unveiling. Together they slid the U.S. Postal Service cover down to reveal a poster-sized, framed picture of the stamp. It is part of the commemorative series “Sunday Funnies” that also features Archie, Garfield, Dennis the Menace and Calvin and Hobbes. The Beetle Bailey stamp shows a typically angry Sergeant Snorkel losing his temper as Beetle Bailey smiles calmly.
Earlier, speakers shared their memories of The Shack. Larry McMullen, president of the Friends of the Mizzou Botanic Garden, said the most interesting thing about it was its five-foot high ceiling; tall guys like him had to stoop to enter and then sit elbow to elbow with other students because there weren’t many booths during his time.
Linda Russell-Whitworth, president of the Mizzou Alumni Association, said, “We would meet at The Shack, and just have a fun, fun time.” She said it was an honor to be at the event because it was the first time a stamp unveiling ceremony was taking place at the university.
Before the unveiling of the stamp, a small presentation was held that had enormous meaning to those involved. Bolles presented Central Missouri Honor Flight representative Steve Paulsell with a check for an undisclosed amount on behalf of the Central Missouri Postal Customers Council to help with their operations. The audience responded with hearty applause for the 15 World War II veterans who attended the ceremony.
The stamp dedication was hosted by the Mizzou Botanic Garden and the Central Missouri Postal Customers Council with support from the Mizzou Alumni Association and the University of Missouri Army ROTC. It was held on the same day as the 11th anniversary of the Mizzou Botanic Garden. The garden was designated a botanic garden on Aug. 26, 1999, but, the anniversary is celebrated annually on Aug. 27.
Karlan Seville, communications manager of campus facilities, said the timing of the stamp unveiling was an opportunity to spread the word that the campus is a botanic garden. "A lot of people don’t realize that."