Chris Cassatt, 1946-2013: Former Aspen Times cartoonist dies at 66
Ryan Summerlin January 17, 2013
ASPEN – Chris Cassatt, award-winning photographer, designer and, above all – in his mind at least – cartoonist, died Wednesday morning at his midvalley home after a two-month battle with lymphoma. He was 66.
Cassatt’s photographs of Aspen were a major feature of The Aspen Times through the 1970s and ’80s, and he created a modernized layout of the newspaper in the early 1970s, working secretly with then-editor Nick Pabst and launching the design when Publisher Bil Dunaway was out of town – with both men holding their breaths to see if they still had jobs when Dunaway returned. They shouldn’t have worried – their design was a prize-winning success and established the look of the newspaper for decades to come.
But Cassatt’s true passion and greatest success – locally and nationally – was his cartoons.
His most widely known achievements have come in recent years, when he has been responsible for the internationally syndicated comic strip “Shoe,” which appears in some 500 newspapers. However, his greatest personal creative success may have been with Sal A. Mander, a character born from a Jerome Bar sketch of one of Cassatt’s droopy-eyed, pot-bellied Aspen friends.
Cassatt’s naturally subversive sense of humor came out most strongly when he began running his cartoon creation for various local and state offices. After candidate Sal A. Mander was thrown off the ballot in an Aspen mayoral election on the shaky (in Aspen, anyway) grounds that he was not a “real person,” Cassatt legally changed his name to Sal A. Mander and ran for Colorado governor in 1978, finishing fifth in a six-candidate contest.
But the most successful of his political campaigns was a write-in campaign in 1980 against incumbent District Attorney Chuck Leidner, whose plans for undercover police operations had offended many in the Aspen community.
Leidner was running unopposed, and Cassatt couldn’t resist jumping into the fray. Declaring Leidner to be “a snake,” the Mander campaign used the slogan “It’s your choice: the lizard or the snake.” The effort also featured a poster by local artist Tom Benton, featuring a Shakespeare quotation: “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.”
Although Leidner won re-election handily, the brutal campaign against a cartoon character apparently embarrassed him so deeply that he resigned from office shortly after the election. One of the major Denver daily newspapers noted that development in an editorial that suggested that, following the model of “gerrymandered,” the political lexicon should be modified to add “salamandered,” meaning “forced out of office through ridicule.”
Never a natural artist, Cassatt began his cartooning career with a photo-based strip called “Protonibus.” Then, displaying determination and a work ethic that he often went to great lengths to conceal, Cassatt spent years teaching himself to draw and launching a series of strips, including “Downe and Dirty,” “Pizza Bones” and “Ute Toot.”
A computer whiz, Cassatt often used those skills as he put his strips together, and that process, combined with his long-standing close friendship with Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Mike Peters, led to his breakthrough onto the national stage. In the early 1990s, Peters introduced Cassatt to Jeff MacNelly, also a Pulitzer Prize winner and the creator of “Shoe.” Using his computer skills to help MacNelly produce the strip, Cassatt rapidly became an invaluable part of the “Shoe” operation. And after MacNelly’s untimely death in 2000, Cassatt – working with MacNelly’s widow, Susie, and illustrator Gary Brookins – used those skills to keep the strip alive. Cassatt put his heart and soul into the strip, working six days a week for 12 years.
Aside from his fervent cartooning, Cassatt’s refusal to conform was reflected in his skiing. In the 1970s, following up on the legend that early skis were made from barrel staves, Cassatt created his own brand of barrel-stave skis from short whiskey-barrel staves. He put plastic bottoms and metal edges on the staves, along with modern release bindings. The “skis,” curved from edge to edge, as well as end to end, were wildly unstable, but Cassatt mastered them – skiing at high speeds, without poles, turning constantly and usually with a Nikon camera in hand.
Cassatt was born April 25, 1946, in Syracuse, N.Y., to Robert and Marjorie Cassatt. He grew up in Rumson, N.J., and attended Parsons College in Fairfield, Iowa, and Windham College in Putney, Vt. Both colleges went out of business not long after his departure, but Cassatt refused to accept any blame for their fate. In 1969, he decided he had learned enough to leave college despite his lack of a degree – the final necessary bit of knowledge being the fact that his draft-lottery number came up 351 out of 365.
Leaving college in his wake, Cassatt headed west, settling in Aspen. In 1970, he began his career at The Aspen Times as flyboy, the lowest-ranking position at the paper, stacking newspapers as they came off the printing press.
Showing the same level of dedication and hard work that would mark his cartooning career, Cassatt quickly moved up through the ranks, becoming the paper’s front-page designer and chief photographer. He also was named editor of The Aspen Flyer, a twice-weekly advertising publication that Cassatt quickly turned into a free-wheeling no-holds-barred paper filled with offbeat humorous and satirical articles.
Through the 1970s and early 1980s, Cassatt’s talents and spirit were a vital part of the Times, which was, for much of that time, the town’s only newspaper, a weekly that helped define, as well as chronicle, Aspen’s developing character. Cassatt also collaborated with the Times’ Mary Eshbaugh Hayes on a book, “The Story of Aspen.”
For all his awards and triumphs, Cassatt’s biggest success at The Aspen Times was his office romance with business manager Lauren MacDonald, which led to their marriage in Aspen in 1974. Their marriage produced two children, son Alex (who had the questionable distinction of being officially born Alexander Mander before his father changed his name back to Cassatt) and daughter Hayley. Alex, now living in Seattle, is a sound engineer who inherited Chris’ technological genius, while Hayley is an art teacher and professional artist in Portland, Ore., thus neatly dividing the skills that lurked in the Cassatt gene pool. Both children have returned home to spend the past weeks with their father.
In addition to his wife and children, Cassatt is survived by his parents and his brother, Rob, of Hampstead, N.C.
No immediate plans for a public memorial service have been made. Lauren Cassatt can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In Cassatt’s memory, the front page of Thursday’s print edition features a version of the former flag bearing The Aspen Times’ name, which Cassatt was instrumental in designing.