John McMeel, co-founder of what began as a basement operation in a rented ranch house in Kansas, with a mail drop on Fifth Avenue in New York City, and grew into the largest newspaper syndication company in the world, died July 7 at his home in Kansas City, Missouri. He was 85.
His death was announced by his company, Andrews McMeel Universal, which did not specify the cause.
McMeel and Jim Andrews were holding day jobs in the late 1960s — McMeel as a salesperson for Hall, a newspaper syndication company in New York City, and 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. Andrews gave himself a pseudonym, John Kennedy, for the president he had idolized.
Andrews, a cerebral former Roman Catholic seminarian living in Leawood, Kansas, trawled for content creators such as Garry Trudeau, whom he found in the pages of the Yale Daily News. (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 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.) McMeel, a waggish and charming law school dropout, was the salesperson.
It was McMeel’s job to explain to staid newspaper editors raised on “Beetle Bailey” why they needed to freshen up their pages with contemporary voices such as 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in the syndicate business,” Jim Squires, a former editor of the Chicago Tribune and the Orlando Sentinel, said in an unpublished oral history of Universal.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 Trudeau, the partners had also been courting Garry Wills, author and journalist (and, like Andrews, a former Catholic seminarian), who had been writing for Esquire. McMeel did the courting, although 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, 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.”
Wills’ column for Universal would run in hundreds of newspapers for the next three decades.
Andrews and 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,” political columnist Mary McGrory wrote when the company turned 25. She was one of the many banner names at The Washington Star — James Kilpatrick and Buckley were others — whom Andrews and 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 McMeel was going to have to tell Ben Bradlee, The Post’s volatile editor. It did not go well, and Bradlee told 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.