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Award-winning Sun-Times graphic designer Norman B. Schaefer dies at 75

During 33 years at the Chicago Sun-Times, the versatile, organized graphic designer Norm Schaefer handled food and fashion sections and Midwest magazine. | Provided photo

Norm Schaefer made work fun.

An award-winning graphic designer at the Chicago Sun-Times and Playboy magazine, he could freely dispense movie dialogue that seemed applicable to almost any office situation.

Back when the Sun-Times and other newspapers had sizable design staffs, he might greet visitors to the art department with a line from “My Favorite Year”: “I would like to welcome you to our humble chapeau.”

Or, with hammy relish, he’d quote from “The Adventures of Robin Hood”: “I’ll have him dangling in a week!”

Norm Schaefer kept the Sun-Times art department laughing. | Provided photo

When deadlines loomed, he’d lighten the mood with another line inspired by “My Favorite Year”: “Go ahead and lash me, you swine, you shan’t loosen my tongue!”

“He was a fantastic designer, and he was always laughing,” said Charlotte Searl, a former Sun-Times artist and designer who now works at the Chicago Tribune.

Mr. Schaefer, 75, of Libertyville, died Sunday at Advocate Condell Medical Center in Libertyville. He had been fighting a second bout of lung cancer, but the cause of death was a head injury from a fall at an assisted living facility, according to his daughter, Aimee Schaefer.

During a 33-year-career at the Sun-Times, “He would design and lay out the pages, ask us illustrators to illustrate, and get photographers to take shots,” said Don Klappauf, a former illustrator with the newspaper and a retired art director for the American Bar Association. “He would pull it all together.”

Before the Sun-Times, “He was a designer for Playboy, and so his talent was just incredible,” former Sun-Times artist John Downs said.

He won major awards from newspaper design groups, said former Sun-Times designer Bill Linden, who used to call him “Normie-kins.”

Mr. Schaefer often handled the food and fashion sections, said John Nocita, a retired assistant managing editor for graphics at the Sun-Times. He also designed Midwest, the Sunday magazine of the Sun-Times, Linden said.

Chicago Sun-Times graphic designer Norm Schaefer. | Provided photo

Young Norm grew up near Midway Airport and went to Luther South High School. After studying at a Chicago art school, he landed a job at a small ad agency in Chicago, followed by Playboy, said Holly, his wife of 33 years. He also did design work at newspapers in Pittsburgh, New York and at Playboy in Los Angeles, she said.

In Los Angeles, he started buying movie posters at auctions of props from the big studio lots, his wife said. He had an original “Casablanca” poster that Sun-Times critic Roger Ebert sometimes used as a backdrop for his TV shows, she said.

Mr. Schaefer returned to the Chicago office of Playboy in the 1970s, she said.

It wasn’t unusual to run into celebrities at Playboy. Once, “He tried pantsing Woody Allen,” his wife said.

Riding an elevator with Dionne Warwick, he started warbling one of her songs. “She looked at him and they started singing together and had a duet on the elevator,” said his daughter Aimee Schaefer. Another time, she said, her dad wound up in an office wrestling match with Burt Ward, who portrayed Robin in the 1960s “Batman” TV series.

After retiring from the Sun-Times in 2007, he kept creating. He shot photographs and drew pastels, and crafted framed art for his grandchildren’s rooms featuring superheroes like Batman, Superman and Spiderman, said his son Nicholas.

Artist Norm Schaefer (standing, in argyle sweater) and family. | Family photo

Mr. Schaefer also wrote fiction for children and young adults. “We would go to Wisconsin with him every summer, and he would tell us these stories off the top of his head for hours,” said another daughter, Wren Gordon. “I’m not kidding, four hours [long], just made them up.” A favorite was about a fish, “Ole Rattlejaw” and a boy’s struggle with social issues and his quest to land the fish.

In addition to his “Casablanca” poster, he owned posters from many Errol Flynn movies, including “Robin Hood,” “The Prince and the Pauper” and “The Sea Hawk.”

“Errol Flynn was his hero, he loved the swashbuckling,” his wife said.

Sun-Times colleagues swarmed when he brought in his mother’s butter cookies, lacy confections that melted in the mouth. He enjoyed corny TV shows about hunting for ghosts and Bigfoot, Wren Gordon said.

Mr. Schaefer is also survived by five grandchildren, and his cousins Don Korff, Judy Rickard and Claudia Kiefer. Visitation is 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday at Burnett-Dane Funeral Home, 120 W. Park Ave., Libertyville. A funeral service is planned at 11 a.m. Friday at Lutheran Church of the Holy Spirit, 30 Riverwoods Rd., Lincolnshire.