Dick Locher never had drawn an editorial cartoon in his life when his late friend and mentor, Chester Gould, told him the Chicago Tribune had an opening for an editorial cartoonist.
Gould suggested Locher head to the Trib the next day with 12 samples of his work.
Locher stayed up all night and managed to come up with seven cartoons. He got the job and the Naperville resident became a Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist at the Tribune - a post he still holds 39 years later.
What Locher didn't know was that he also would one day take over producing the Dick Tracy comic strip Gould created in 1931. Locher, who served as Gould's assistant from 1957-61, became the strip's artist in 1983. He drew the strip until earlier this year and continues as its writer.
His work on Dick Tracy has been garnering him recent recognition in his hometown. He is one of the artists depicted in the "World's Greatest Artists" mural painted on the wall of the Naperville Art League's gallery this summer.
An even bigger tribute is coming this fall with the dedication of a larger-than-life sculpture of Dick Tracy in downtown Naperville as the 35th piece of artwork commissioned by the nonprofit Century Walk Corp.
The 9-foot brass sculpture will depict the squared-jawed police detective talking into his two-way wrist radio. He'll be wearing his signature yellow coat and a red tie.
Locher, who does bronze work as a hobby, drew the design and made a model for the sculpture.
"I think he (Gould) would like the statute," Locher said. "He (Dick Tracy) is known all over the world."
Working with the Century Walk Corp., Locher chose the location for the sculpture - on the south side of DuPage River at the end of the covered bridge near the offices of Naperville Township.
The prominent location, where it can be seen from both sides of the river, is fitting for the fictitious detective who has an international reputation, said Brand Bobosky, president of Century Walk Corp.
"It's going to be our signature piece," he said.
Bobosky said Century Walk is looking into producing scale replicas of the statute that it will sell on its Web site.
"We believe they will be of interest to law enforcement around the world," he said.
Passing time's test
Only a handful of running comic strips are older than Dick Tracy, Locher said. Jim Brozman has taken over the drawing, but Locher still provides pencils sketches and writes the story line.
The strip has shrunk from its original size to the four short panels published today, but Locher said he doesn't think Dick Tracy will ever go out of style. The strip has 12.5 million readers a day.
"As long as man has a criminal mind, there will always be a Dick Tracy," he said.
The strip has changed with the times, Locher said. Gould's detective dealt with thugs and underground figures. Today, Dick Tracy fights white collar crime, kidnappings, assault, forgery and terrorism.
An array of hard-to-forget characters - people like Flattop Jones, Mumbles and Pruneface - have carried the comic strip through the years, Locher said.
Gould let him create some of the characters in the four years they worked together.
"He was a stickler; detail was required," he said. "We thought alike. It was one of those sparks that jump from generation to generation."
A native of Iowa, Locher left his position as Gould's assistant to be with his ill father and started his own advertising company before returning to the Tribune as an editorial cartoonist. After Gould passed on, Locher remained in touch with the older man's family.
Gould's daughter, Jean Gould O'Connell, and grandchildren will be at the statute's dedication. Originally set for Oct. 4, the 78th anniversary of the comic strip's debut, the dedication has been postponed at least three weeks until the sculpture is completed.
O'Connell said Locher became a personal friend to her family and wrote the forward to a book she wrote about her father, "Chester Gould: a daughter's biography of the creator of Dick Tracy."
Locher has approached the comic strip differently than her father, but the two men shared similar beliefs, she said.
"They were both great optimists. They loved to be together," she said. "He (Gould) would be very proud to see the Dick Tracy statute."
Locher said he expects 200 to 250 people to attend the dedication.
"It's big," he said.
Dick Tracy isn't all that occupies Locher's days, however. He still works full-time from his Naperville home turning out five editorial cartoons a week. He gets up at 4:30 a.m. to listen to the news and pick out his subject for the day.
"What dictates an editorial cartoon is the contemporary news story," he said.
Five or six sketches later, he e-mails the finished piece to meet his noon deadline.
Locher said he is one of only about 80 full-time editorial cartoonists in the country and the envy of his colleagues elsewhere.
"Illinois is a great place for a cartoonist to work. Fertile ground," he said.
The ideas and political philosophy expressed in his cartoons are his own, Locher said. Many of his recent cartoons reflect the confusion and anxiety the public has over President Obama's health care plan. In one, an elderly woman sitting in front of a TV declares, "If the new health care proposal messes with my hospital soaps, Pow! Right in the kisser!"
His political outlook is right of center, but he's an equal opportunity offender, Locher said. He's received a few death threats during his career, a good indication he's on the right track as a cartoonist, he said.
"Good letters are fine. Scary ones, you know you've done your job well," he said.
Locher has met every president since he started as an editorial cartoonist 39 years ago except Nixon, who didn't like journalists, and Obama.
His favorite was Ronald Reagan. Reagan invited Locher to lunch at the White House and the two spent four hours together. When Locher's son, John, died at age 21, Reagan sent a condolence letter.
"He was so erudite; so fluent," Locher said.
But Locher didn't overlook his favorite president's missteps. His cartoon of Reagan in a Superman costume falling out of a phone booth as a comment on the president's handling of an arms shipment to Venezuela helped Locher win the Pulitzer Prize in 1983.
Amid the celebration in the newsroom, an editor whispered a humbling thought in his ear, Locher recalled.
"Dick, today's Pulitzer wraps tomorrow's fish."
Locher said he can't say for sure editorial cartoons change anyone's mind, but he hopes they shed light on the subjects they depict.
"I like to have the reader say, I never thought of it that way before," he said.
A good cartoon must be well-drawn, accurate, contain a history lesson and make its point quickly, he said.
"We make it funny because the news is so dreadful," he said. "Being an editorial cartoonist is like being the blind javelin thrower in the Olympics. We don't win many awards, but we keep the crowd alert."
Locher keeps himself occupied as well. He lives with his wife, Mary, in the same Naperville neighborhood they moved to 40 years ago. Over the years, he has served as a trustee at Benedictine University in Lisle, headed United Way and helped with local fundraisers.
When he retires, he would like to spend more time with his other hobby, oil painting. But for now, the paintbrushes aren't getting much of a workout.
"Not yet," he said. "I'm having too much fun."