Sunday, January 15, 2006

The Country Editor: "The Gay Philosopher"

When my dad first began to write his column for his newspaper in the fall of 1948, he called it “People and Things.” That was a bit bland, so after a few months, he decided to set up a contest of sorts to find a new and more intriguing title. He got a letter from an “HTR,” who proposed the winning title. (I have an idea “HTR” was my dad’s business partner, but I guess I won’t say any more than that.)

HTR sent him a picture of “The Gay Philosopher,” a comical man with a high collar, a jaunty hat, and a big, mischievous grin. HTR’s letter says this:

Dear Sir:
Recently you advertised for a name for your column. I’ve read Texas newspapers a good many years—have even worked on a few. Amarillo has their “Tactless Texan”; Fort Worth has their “Home Towner.”

Why can’t we have “The Gay Philosopher”? The enclosed picture isn’t original. I forget the guy’s name who painted it. Anyhow he says if it looks as much like you as we imagine it does, you can use it. It’s copyrighted. So don’t try to sell it.

So, as “The Gay Philosopher,” I salute you. Have a good time.

My dad continued in the column,

We believe firmly that we’re much handsomer than the picture. The guy in the picture probably doesn’t have any more hair than we do. If he did, he wouldn’t be wearing his hat. Anyhow, as pictures go, the GP is a pretty interesting-looking character. Moreover, we’re wondering what HTR looks like, after seeing a sample of what he considers good pictures.

For many years, the column was called “The Gay Philosopher”; the GP’s picture was always at the top of it, with my dad’s initials, “JWS,” under the picture.

I never knew where it came from, but the GP phenomenon grew through the years. People sent him all sorts of pictures of the Gay Philosopher, his wife, his son, and his daughter; eventually, my dad had on his office wall a large family portrait of the four, as well as individual portraits of the GP, his wife, and his son. I always gave him a hard time because he didn’t have a single portrait of the daughter. For my birthday about fifteen years ago, my mother did a pastel crayon portrait of the GP’s daughter. It hangs on my office wall at the college and gives me sweet memories of those years. I get some funny questions about it.

Who originated the Gay Philosopher? I looked it up on the Internet yesterday and found a 1950's calendar through an antique dealer, featuring the GP throughout. (I bought it and eagerly await its arrival.) The picture of the GP has this description:

An original Brown & Bigelow published illustration for calendar use by their art director Clair V. Fry . Fry studied at the American Academy of Art in Chicago, the Chicago Art Institute and the Minneapolis Art Institute. He was Art Director of Brown and Bigelow for 35 years, working with Norman Rockwell, Maxfield Parrish and N. C. Wyeth.

Eventually the word “gay” changed from “happy and carefree” to what it means now. So JWS’s column went back to its original bland title: “People and Things.” And “gay” gives me a good example for my classes of how the meanings of English words are always changing.

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