John P. McMeel, Newspaper Syndicator With a Difference, Dies at 85

John McMeel, a founder of what began as a basement operation in a rented ranch house in Kansas — with a mail drop on Fifth Avenue — and grew into the largest newspaper syndication company in the world, died on July 7 at his home in Kansas City, Mo. He was 85.

His death was announced by his company, Andrews McMeel Universal, which did not specify the cause.

Mr. McMeel and Jim Andrews were holding day jobs in the late 1960s — Mr. McMeel as a salesman for Hall, a newspaper syndication company in New York City; Mr. Andrews as managing editor of The National Catholic Reporter in Kansas City — but they were already moonlighting as the syndication moguls they would one day become.

Before their company had any clients, it had a name, Universal Press Syndicate, which they chose because it sounded grown-up and corporate and as if it had been around forever. Mr. Andrews gave himself a pseudonym, John Kennedy, for the president he had idolized.

Mr. Andrews, a cerebral former Roman Catholic seminarian living in Leawood, Kan., trawled for content creators like Garry Trudeau, whom he found in the pages of The Yale Daily News. (Mr. Trudeau was a Yale junior writing a strip called “Bull Tales” about a college quarterback named B.D. — the character who became the world-weary warrior in Mr. Trudeau’s “Doonesbury” — and the partners had to wait for him to graduate, and for the threat of the military draft to pass, before signing him up.) Mr. McMeel, a waggish and charming law school dropout, was the salesman.

It was Mr. McMeel’s job to explain to staid newspaper editors raised on “Beetle Bailey” why they needed to freshen up their pages with contemporary voices like Mr. Trudeau’s. When “Bull Tales” morphed into “Doonesbury” and first appeared in newspapers in 1970, it made Universal Press Syndicate a bona fide company. The partners soon quit their day jobs.

The two “were a breath of fresh air in the syndicate business,” Jim Squires, a former editor of The Chicago Tribune and The Orlando Sentinel, said in an unpublished oral history of Universal. “Newspapers were still trying to live in the 18th century. We still had ‘hot type.’ Our idea of comic strips was ‘Little Orphan Annie’ and ‘Dick Tracy.’”

Around the time they were wooing Mr. Trudeau, the partners had also been courting Garry Wills, the author and journalist (and, like Mr. Andrews, a former Catholic seminarian), who had been writing for Esquire. Mr. McMeel did the courting, though Mr. Wills was initially reluctant: His former boss at National Review, William F. Buckley Jr., had counseled him against writing a column for syndication.

But then, in May 1970, 13 students at Kent State University in Ohio were shot by National Guard troops while protesting the war in Vietnam. Four died.

“Esquire had a two-month lead time” before an article could be published, Mr. Wills said in a phone interview. “I felt so left behind by the pace of the horrible things that were happening, I would have accepted any terms to get into a paper the next day. I called Jim and left a message. I flew to Kent State and I filed that day.”

Mr. Wills’s column for Universal would run in hundreds of newspapers for the next three decades.

Mr. Andrews and Mr. McMeel went on to gather a stable of commentators who were chronicling those roiling times.

“They thought it was their job to make writers and cartoonists happy and rich and put them in as many papers as possible,” the political columnist Mary McGrory wrote when the company turned 25. She was one of the many banner names at The Washington Star —James J. Kilpatrick and Mr. Buckley were others — whom Mr. Andrews and Mr. McMeel picked up in 1979 in an arrangement under which Time Inc., which owned The Star, invested in Universal and gave it the rights to syndicate the newspaper’s columnists.

The linchpin of the deal was that “Doonesbury,” a Pulitzer Prize winner that had been running in The Washington Post, would move to The Star. And Mr. McMeel was going to have to tell Ben Bradlee, The Post’s volatile editor. It did not go well, and Mr. Bradlee told Mr. McMeel that one day he’d crawl back to The Post on his hands and knees — which he did, two years later, when The Star closed.

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Mr. McMeel blamed his partner. The two had had an agreement that if anything ever went wrong, each man would say it was the other’s fault. But Mr. McMeel’s finger-pointing came as a bit of mordant humor: Mr. Andrews had died a year earlier.

Not only was Universal putting fresh voices like Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Wills into newspapers; the company was also doing all sorts of unheard-of things, like granting Mr. Trudeau the rights to his work, forgoing the immense profits that would have come from licensing deals.

Universal did the same for Bill Watterson, the graphic designer who created “Calvin and Hobbes,” the wildly popular strip featuring the rebellions of a 6-year-old boy (named for a 16th-century theologian) and his sidekick, a stuffed tiger (named for a 17th-century philosopher). The company also gave its stars time off: Mr. Trudeau, Mr. Watterson and Gary Larson, creator of “The Far Side,” all took extended leaves.

Cathy Guisewite, whose appealing and often befuddled cartoon avatar, Cathy, spoke to young women caught between the heady promises of second-wave feminism and the grind of everyday life, said that Mr. Andrews had been the heart and soul of the company and Mr. McMeel the fireworks.

“Cartoonists and their syndicates are typically at odds with each other,” Ms. Guisewite said. “But John created the opposite feeling for us. John opened up a new universe for different kinds of voices on the page. His insistence that there was room for our voices made room for others, too.”

John Paul McMeel was born on Jan. 26, 1936, in South Bend, Ind. His father, James, was the doctor for the University of Notre Dame’s football team; his mother, Naomi (Reilly) McMeel, was a homemaker. He earned a degree in business from Notre Dame in 1957.

Mr. McMeel spent a year in law school at Indiana University before dropping out to take a sales job at the Hall Syndicate. He had just started working there when he met Susan Sykes on a blind date. They married in 1966.

He met Mr. Andrews on a return visit home to South Bend; still a student at Notre Dame, Mr. Andrews was renting a room from Mr. McMeel’s mother.

In the early days of Universal, Mr. Andrews’s wife, Kathleen, kept the books, and Ms. McMeel, back in New York, read submissions. When Mr. Andrews died suddenly in 1980 at 44, Ms. Andrews returned to the company as chief executive of its publishing business. She later became vice chairman of the company. She died in April at 84.

Universal rebranded itself as Andrews McMeel Universal in the late 1980s. By then Mr. McMeel had signed up Dear Abby, Erma Bombeck, Mr. Larson, Roger Ebert and Pat Oliphant, the arch Australian-born political cartoonist.

Mr. McMeel never really retired, his wife said. At his death he was the company’s chairman emeritus.

In addition to her, Mr. McMeel is survived by three daughters, Maureen McMeel Carroll, Suzanne McMeel Glynn and Bridget McMeel Rohmer, and nine grandchildren.

Indefatigably sunny, Mr. McMeel had the optimism — and the stamina — of a true salesman. Jim Davis, the creator of the misanthropic cat Garfield, first met Mr. McMeel at an American Booksellers Association convention in 1981. Mr. McMeel approached him for an autograph, brandishing a Garfield book with a contract tucked inside. But Mr. Davis had a long-term contract with United Media, which had been syndicating his strip.

“It became a running gag,” Mr. Davis said. “Every time we met he’d hand me a newspaper or something with a contract inside.” After 15 years, Mr. Davis was finally free to sign with Universal.

“The thing with John,” he said, “is it didn’t feel like business. I once did an interview and the reporter asked me why Gary Larson had retired and I was still going. I said: ‘Well, Gary works so hard and he puts so much pressure on himself. Me, if I feel that kind of pressure, I lower my standards.’ It was that kind of air that John encouraged.”

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