Artist John M. Downs, a witness to history in a long career with Sun-Times, Daily News, has died
Taught by artist LeRoy Neiman at the School of the Art Institute, he stared down John Gacy as he sketched the serial killer in court. He won. Gacy broke eye contact first.
John M. Downs’ talent for art carried him from his days as Snowball King of the winter formal at Wisconsin’s Tomah High School to being a witness to history in a long career with the Chicago Daily News and Chicago Sun-Times.
Mr. Downs, a working artist for 60 years, died early Monday at his Rogers Park home and studio of complications from lymphoma, according to friends. He was 82.
He once stared down John Wayne Gacy as he sketched the serial killer in court. He won. Gacy broke eye contact first.
UPDATE OCT. 30: SERVICES
Visitation for John Downs will be from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday (Nov. 3) at Drake & Son Funeral Home, 5303 N. Western Ave. A memorial mass is planned for 9:30 a.m. Monday at St. Nicholas Church, 806 Ridge Ave., Evanston.
And Mr. Downs was just feet away when Richard Speck was identified by the lone survivor of a night of depravity in which the drifter killed eight student nurses in their South Side apartment. Nurse Corazon Amurao lived because she rolled under a bed and hid as Speck stabbed and strangled the others.
Mr. Downs captured the moment she stepped down from the witness stand and walked to the defense table where Speck was seated, and, looking down at the killer who’d sent an entire city into a panic, pointed and said: “This is the man.”
In 1962, on his first day at the Chicago Daily News, he was a witness to the execution of a convicted murderer in the electric chair at the Cook County Jail. “I never really got over it,” he said in a 1999 interview with the Chicago Reader.
At one point, Mr. Downs lived in the same Edgewater three-flat as a youthful Rahm Emanuel. As kids, the future mayor and his brothers Ari and Ezekiel would run back and forth from their apartment to that of Mr. Downs and his then-wife Maura. “They were like aunts and uncles,” the former mayor said.
“He did an illustration of each of the kids and my dad and mom,” Emanuel said. “John also painted a picture my parents still have, of the kids basically on a boat in the Chicago River.”
Taught by artist LeRoy Neiman at the School of the Art Institute, Mr. Downs became a prolific illustrator first for the Daily News and later, after that newspaper folded, for the Sun-Times.
His gentle, easygoing nature made lifelong friends of co-workers. But, Emanuel said, “John had a wicked sense of humor.”
Once, he sent a fellow employee a microwaveable birthday present: a single potato, with a note that said, “Bake Me.”
Another time, Mr. Downs described pranking Sun-Times artist Cliff Wirth as they stood in line at a McDonald’s. Wirth had dropped his coffee and asked for a replacement. “He said, ‘Hey, you owe me a cup of coffee. I just dropped mine outside,’ ” Mr. Downs recalled.
“I stepped forward,” Mr. Downs said, “and I said, ‘You know, he does that every morning, and every time it’s at a different McDonald’s.’
“He wouldn’t talk to me for about a month after that,” Mr. Downs said.
“He had an off-kilter sense of humor and was one of the kindest guys I know,” said former Sun-Times artist Bill Linden, who called him “Downsy.” “I would always be on him [about] being a rube from Wisconsin, but he was an incredible artist.”
After President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas in 1963, Mr. Downs drew an intricately detailed view of the murder scene, including an aerial perspective showing the route of the presidential motorcade and the Texas School Book Depository where Lee Harvey Oswald waited with his rifle.
“When I was stumped trying to come up with something, I would go to John Downs, and he would say ‘I’ll have a sketch in five minutes,’ ” Sun-Times editorial writer Tom Frisbie said.
“I couldn’t believe how fast he was,” Linden said.
“He was so good at what he did and was so quick at it and turned out so much,” said Don Klappauf, another former Sun-Times artist.
Klappauf recalled listening to Mr. Downs’ description of his glaring match with Gacy: “John was proud of himself because he stared him down.”
Mr. Downs illustrated the Chicago Seven trial. During a copyright fight over the song “That Girl is Mine,” he drew Michael Jackson when he appeared in court. His art also ended up in the Smithsonian Institution, the Pentagon and private collections, friends said.
He’d worked as an illustrator while serving in the Army in Texas. According to the interview in the Reader, “He rented a studio in a historic district of San Antonio next to one owned by Mount Rushmore artist Gutzon Borglum.”
Later, he created nearly 150 illustrations in an Air Force arts program that took him around the world. He drew jets, war heroes and military operations.
After retiring in the 1990s, Mr. Downs kept drawing and painting. He enjoyed depicting the farms of Wisconsin and the ships, seascapes and lighthouses of Maine and Monterey, California. His pieces were exhibited at art fairs and at Burnison Galleries Art & Antiques in Lakeside, Michigan.
Young John grew up the son of a railroad man in Tomah, Wisconsin. While attending the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, he worked as a railroad brakeman, according to his partner Darla Ward.
He liked to relax over a white wine at Riccardo’s, adored vanilla Haagen-Dazs and enjoyed listening to Frank Sinatra and Peggy Lee and watching the romantic films “Somewhere in Time” and “Zandy’s Bride” and the bittersweet movie “The Station Agent.”
His former wife Maura Chavez died before him. He is also survived by his daughter Ana Maria and sons Sean and Michael “Thomas” Downs. Funeral arrangements are pending.
“He was so loved by so many people,” Ward said. “At his age, most people don’t have many people left. He had friends of all ages.
“He was just such a kind person,” she said. “If we ever passed a veteran, he’d thank him for his service. At 81 years old, he would still stand up on the train and give someone his seat.”
In Mr. Downs’ final days, when he was asked to choose a hospital bed, he answered with a question: “Do they come in colors?”