Jerry Bittle, creator of the nationally-syndicated comic strips “Geech” and “Shirley and Son,” capitalized on a life that was as laid-back as possible.
“The best job I ever had was as a lifeguard,” Bittle wrote in the foreword of his book, “Sorry We’re Open,” published in 1993 by The Wichita Eagle and Beacon Publishing Co. “The second best job I ever had was as a cartoonist. There are similarities. Each can sleep until noon, both have relaxed dress codes, and neither one requires any math or heavy lifting.”
The truth was he was a doodler.
He doodled as a child. And that, of course, led him to a career doodling as an adult.
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He was born in Heber Springs, Ark., on Oct. 8, 1949. His family moved to Wichita when he was 2.
While still a student at Wichita State University, Bittle started working as a staff artist for The Wichita Eagle and Beacon. It was October 1971 and he was 20 hours short of an art degree.
He started out designing covers for “TV Week,” drew editorial cartoons and created illustrations for reporters’ stories.
While at The Eagle, Bittle was instrumental in designing the Windwagon logo used for years by the Wichita River Festival. But after four years at The Eagle, Bittle wanted to do more cartoons.
In 1975, Bittle left The Eagle and Beacon for a job as a full-time editorial cartoonist at the Albuquerque Tribune. In New Mexico, he developed a friendship with Bill Mauldin, famous for his World War II cartoon characters, “Willie and Joe.”
In 1982, Bittle began the “Geech” cartoon strip. It was syndicated in more than 200 newspapers across the country.
To get a nationally-syndicated comic strip job isn’t easy. In the 1980s, when Universal Press Syndicate was receiving eight to 10 prospective comic strips a day, it would only accept three new strips a year. Of those, one might survive. And, as a rule it often took as long as six months for the company to decide whether it would accept a strip.
Bittle’s strip was accepted within a few days after he submitted it. He was given an 18-year contract.
The strip featured main characters such as Geech, Ruby, Merle, Weldon, Ear, Artie and Rabbit — many characters from his Wichita past.
Geech was a guy who worked at a gas station and who knew nothing about cars. In 1982, when the strip started, Bittle told The Eagle that Geech was like himself.
For technical car advice, he often turned to a friend of his from Southeast High, Vernon Becker.
Becker, he said, was Merle.
“I’d call Vernon and say, “if a car is making this sound … tell me, in the most technical way you can, what might be wrong with it.”
When Merle hired Geech, he told him he was his second choice – the first choice being “anyone else.”
Ruby, heart-of-gold waitress with a razor-sharp tongue, was a waitress at the Fairland Cafe, which used to be in the 100 block of South Broadway.
“One day I was in there and ordered a sandwich,” Bittle said in The Eagle in 1982, “and she threw it on the counter so hard that the top slice of bread flew off.”
Artie was a liberal who often wore a WSU sweatshirt.
“I went there and I knew how to spell it,” Bittle told the “Sunflower,” Wichita State University’s newspaper, in October 1988.
His other strip, Shirley and Son, which started in 2000, featured parents trying to adjust to their post-divorce lives while raising their son.
Bittle died at the height of his career, on April 9, 2003.
He was 53 and suffered a heart attack while on a scuba-diving vacation in Honduras.
In 1993 he wrote of his career: “In school while other kids took notes and doodled in the margins, I doodled and took notes in the margins. If I had taken more notes and less doodles, I might have been able to get a real job. Instead, I ended up as a cartoonist … It is a silly job for a grown man, but somebody’s got to do it. It might as well be me.”