News of Yore 1925: Joe Cunningham Profiled

J.C. and Rufus McGoofus
by Joe Devir

(originally printed in Cartoons & Movies Magazine, April 1925)

It was the appreciative eye of a Pennsylvania Dutch compositor which saved the youthful Joe Cunningham to art and for the later delight of countless admirers of his “Rufus McGoofus,” according to Leon Holtsizer, art director of the Philadelphia Public Ledger, who tells the story as follows:

“Young Joe was about to destroy his first drawing in despair — a ‘fight picture’ — when the aforesaid Berks County connoisseur and typesetter stayed the ruthless hand. ‘Dat’s putty good, Choe,” was the critical and encouraging comment that sent Cunningham in hot haste to Reading’s Latin Quarter for a black velvet jacket, tam-o-shanter and tube paints; henceforth resolved to do or die for art!

“Now Joe swings a wicked pencil. His ‘Rufus McGoofus’, the man with the funny troubles, appearing daily in the Evening Public Ledger and other newspapers, is a favorite ‘funny’ throughout the land. Joe’s chief sport is banqueting. As a raconteur he is as much sought after as is his art, and his after-dinner speeches are as big a hit as ‘Rufus.'”

“Rufus McGoofus” is a comic strip with punch, read by more than a million persons daily. “Rufus” does what the ordinary chap does but never gets credit for. He is a take-off on countless thousands in the land of Stars and Stripes. “McGoofus” is married and has a family. He is convincingly human and tries most anything. First he worked on salary, then he entered business with another chap. His exploits are legion.

The creator of “Rufus” got his start as office boy to the Public Ledger art director. Thereafter Joseph Cunningham flitted in and out of many departments of that paper until he found comfort in the local room, where he did some clever reporting. He drifted into sporting assignments and later the magnet of art drew him back to his first love.

Joe did layouts and retouching on the Philadelphia North American and Evening Times, later reporting for the Evening Telegraph. Then Joe thought he’d travel. He landed a job at the Reading News office. On that sheet Joe proved his ability. He produced a combination of specialties, including a sports cartoon review on Saturday.

Returning to Philadelphia a year later, he grabbed a berth on the North
American, doing sports—writing and cartoons. Then came the war and Joe donned khaki.

After the war Cunningham married, and the happiness of his domestic life improved the quality of his work. But it was hard sledding at first. He opened an office and did free lance sketching and what he called “general sharpshooting.” The art work, including writing, was for Judge, The Farm Journal, Hardware, Motion Picture Exhibitor and other magazines.

“The sharpshooting,” he explained, “consisted of a varied assortment of methods of gathering the jack,” his business having started on a capital of fifteen dollars. He sold stuff such as egg crates, pliers, freight rate guides, ventilators, plate glass and other more or less useful articles.

A typical period of his career was a month spent in taking orders for a hair tonic. Although astounded by the amount of his commissions, he was innocent of the fact that he was the “goat” of a bootlegger. But that’s a story for Joe himself to narrate—if he cares to.

Mr. Cunningham’s versatility is a strong point in his character. The man who spends his whole existence in the same shop or office is a pitiable specimen. In his famous “Essays on Self Reliance” Emerson says: “A sturdy lad from New Hampshire or Vermont, who in turn tries all the professions, who teams it, farms it, peddles it, keeps a school, preaches, edits a newspaper, goes to Congress, buys a township, and so forth in successive years, and always like a cat falls on his feet, is worth a hundred of these city dolls.”

While Joe was very active selling miscellaneous wares, his dominant purpose was the creation of a newspaper comic. He tried out “John Sapp, Demobilized Doughboy,” and it went over big. When the service men had all returned home to civic life, the “John Sapp” strip was withdrawn. Shortly afterward Cunningham hit upon his masterpiece, “Rufus McGoofus,” which he draws for the Ledger Syndicate, together with “Dumb Bells,” another comic.

Some time ago Joe blossomed out as an after-dinner speaker. He harrangues big business organizations and social gatherings with a marvelous flow of humor and common sense. When he addressed the twenty-first annual banquet of the Philadelphia Sporting Writers’ Association, the other day, the Record said:

“The real hit of the evening was a short address by Joe Cunningham, the well-known cartoonist and humorist, whose ready wit fascinated the diners (400 all told, including Lou Young, coach of the University of Pennsylvania football team, and other celebrities), while he leveled words of praise and criticism with equal fairness. None escaped the verbal darts thrust with unerring accuracy by Cunningham, and when he finished his talk the massive banquet hall was in an uproar.”
Cunningham is a regular fellow, with many hobbies. He has managed football teams and has performed over eighteen holes of golf in 90 even, besides being a devout angler. He has three splendid children—Joe, Jr., Jack and Joan.

[a sample of Rufus McGoofus can be found with this post of 2/29/08.]

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