When someone at school asked Cliff Wirth’s kids what their dad did for a living, one of them answered: “Dad doesn’t do anything — he stays in the basement and draws funny pictures.”
Not understanding that Mr. Wirth actually made his living doing what he called “slinging ink,” a school employee felt terrible for the family.
“They brought a food basket by,” said Cathy Snell, one of the Wirth kids.
Mr. Wirth, 91, died May 8 in Bedford, Mass., where he’d moved to be closer to his children. He had Alzheimer’s disease.
A gifted cartoonist, he provided for a family of seven kids on his whimsical drawings, which appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times during the decades he worked for the paper.
“He always said, ‘You have to hustle,’ ” his daughter said. “He was a hired gun with seven children — you’re going to be working all the time.”
He grew up in a family of five kids in Bayonne, N.J. He remembered his childhood so fondly that he created an illustrated book about it: “Stickball, Streetcars and Saturday Matinees.”
“He had wonderful stories about growing up in New Jersey, and he would illustrate them,” said former Sun-Times artist John Downs, “just a bunch of kids running through the neighborhood, jumping from garage roof to garage roof.”
“A tremendous cartoonist,” Downs said. “Cliff could handle a deadline.”
His father Frederick owned a company that dealt in oxygen canisters.
While at Michigan State University, Mr. Wirth enlisted in a military training program and ended up serving as a mechanic with the U.S. Army Air Forces in World War II.
“None of us can quite figure that out,” his daughter said. “He and a screwdriver? Not the best of friends.”
For a time, he was stationed on Japan’s Hokkaido Island, working on PBYs — an amphibious plane.
After the war, he studied on the GI Bill at Detroit’s Meinzinger Art School.
He started his newspaper career in 1950 at The Detroit Times.
The following year, he and fellow Detroiter Catherine Lois Francisco, whom he met at a dance, were married.
He worked on his “funny pictures” in a basement office crammed with his gear.
“It was totally pre-computer,” his daughter said. “I remember ink, X-Acto knives, markers, watercolor pens, brushes, different kinds of paper. It was stacks and shelves of stuff.”
To Mr. Wirth, Blick’s and other art supplies stores were seductive. On entering one, he’d tell his kids: “Walk me down the aisle — get me out of here before I buy anything.”
At times, he drew for auto companies, shopping centers, Michigan Beverage News, the Fuller Brush Company and the Citizens Utility Board.
In 1979, he joined the Sun-Times, where he worked until his retirement in 2002. He and Catherine lived in Wilmette and Evanston.
He enjoyed his wife’s hobby of raising and showing prize-winning English bulldogs.
“She loved dogs,” he once said, “and one day she said she’d like to have one. I said, if we’re going to do it, let’s get a good one.”
Mr. Wirth named the first bulldog Winston. Rosie, Eddy, Aretha, Paloma and others followed. Later, Catherine Wirth switched to raising French bulldogs.
He loved vacationing and golfing in the Low Country around South Carolina’s Hilton Head Island, which he viewed with an artist’s eye.
“Each year, my better half and I discard the earmuffs and woolen mufflers and scoot to the warmer confines below the Mason-Dixon line,” he wrote in a Sun-Times travel piece. “The Creator outdid Himself here. He spread an incomparably beautiful wide beach along the coast. . . .He didn’t forget His sense of humor, either, as a glance at the pelicans and alligators proves.”
In addition to daughter Cathy Snell, Mr. Wirth is survived by daughters Patricia Moody and Bridget Tremaine, sons Robert, Timothy and Gary, his sister Peggy Wirth, 17 grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren.
Mr. Wirth will be cremated. His remains are to be buried next to those of his wife at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery in Southfield, Michigan. A memorial is planned for sometime later this summer in the Detroit area, according to Cathy Snell.