TSH: Sanford graduate wins Pulitzer Prize

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Today in Sanford history (TSH), Doug Marlette, a member of Seminole High School’s Class of 1967, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartoons. It was March 31, 1988.

Marlette was born In Greensboro, N.C., and was raised in North Carolina and Mississippi before moving to Sanford as a teenager.

Some of his first cartoons were published in the Sanford Herald while he was still in high school. The ones I’ve come across were vignettes of local sports figures or events that were popular in newspapers of the 1940s, 50s and 60s.

This sports vignettes created by Doug Marlette appeared in the Sept. 7, 1966 edition of the Sanford Herald.

He worked for the student newspapers at Seminole Junior College (today Seminole State College) and Florida State University while attending both schools, and he designed the cover for the 1970-71 Tally Ho, Florida State’s yearbook.

Marlette left Tallahassee to become the cartoonist for the Charlotte Observer. He would later work for the Atlanta Journal Constitution, New York Newsday, the Tallahassee Democrat, and The Tulsa World.

Marlette’s editorial cartoons usually hinted at his rural roots, regardless of the subject matter. And while the punchline often was delivered as gentle as sweet tea, Marlette could unleash a devastating dose of sarcasm.

When Strom Thurmond, the South Carolina Senator who advocated racial segregation, died in 2003, Marlette drew a cartoon of a nervous Thurmond trying to get into heaven. Saint Peter is a black man sitting above a sign that read, “We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone.” Such signs were posted at the entrance of white-owned businesses throughout the South during the Civil Rights era as a warning to blacks not to enter.

In 1981, Marlette began syndicating a daily comic strip, “Kudzu.” At its peak, “Kudzu,” was published in more than 300 newspapers. It followed Kudzu Dubose, a 16-year-old growing up in small town South who aspires to be a famous writer. The cast of characters included Rev. Will B. Dunn, Nasal T. Lardbottom and Veranda Tadsworth.

In addition to the Pulitzer Prize, Marlette won every major cartooning award. His talents weren’t limited to drawing, however. And while cartooning continued to be his day job, by the late 1990s Marlette began exploring other art forms.

In 1998, Marlette adapted his comic strip for the stage. “Kudzu, A Southern Musical” debuted in Washington, D.C. and would go on to be produced by theater groups large and small around the nation.

In 2001 HarperCollins published his first novel, “The Bridge.“ It won the Best Book of the Year, Fiction, award sponsored by the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance, and drew comparisons to his good friend Pat Conroy, the southern novelist whose work “The Prince of Tides and “The Great Santini” became major motion pictures. A second novel, “Magic Time,” also received critical acclaim.

Tragically, Marlette died in 2007 at age 57. He was a passenger in a pickup truck that hydroplaned and struck a tree in heavy rain near Oxford, Miss. He was on his way to help students at Oxford High School prepare for their performance of Kudzu, “A Southern Musical” at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland.

Sanford has such a unique and diverse history, and I’m proud to share these little tidbits. Doug Marlette’s story, however, holds extra special meaning for me.

My love of newspapers started when I was a kid reading the comic page. When I was in junior high, I discovered there were cartoons on the editorial page. I didn’t always understand the nuances, but it became a daily habit to read the editorial cartoons. Growing up in Tennessee, Doug‘s southern-flavored cartoons were among my favorite. Then when my local paper, “The Oak Ridger,” became one of the first newspapers to publish Doug’s “Kudzu” strip, I became an even bigger fan.

So imagine my surprise in 1999. I’m the editor of the Sanford Herald, and I’m in the morgue (the room where they keep old, bound copies of newspapers) flipping through yellowing copies of the Herald from 1966. I see one of those old vignettes on the sports page. The drawing doesn’t have the exaggerated features that were a part of his editorial cartoon style, but I swear it’s a Marlette. I look closer and Doug’s unique signature confirms what I’m struggling to believe. I remember thinking, “I’m the editor of the newspaper where Doug Marlette got his start!“

That fact didn’t make me a better writer or editor, and Lord knows I had absolutely zero to do with Doug‘s success. Regardless, I was – and still am – proud that Doug produced his first work for the Sanford Herald.

Like I said, I’m proud of all the amazing people, famous or not, who have made Sanford such a special place. I’m just a bit more partial to Doug Marlette.

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