Amish Acres

Amish Acres® Historic Farm and Heritage Resort is Listed in the National Register of Historic Places. It is America's most complete Amish heritage experience featuring historic interpretation, culinary and performing arts, lodging, and shopping.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Max Gwin, One of the Good Guys

Max, as you will read, was a special influence on my life. I was reminded last night that I have not been fulfilling my responsibilities with this blog. This is my latest chance to start anew.

Max J. Gwin
(November 30, 1924 - December 30, 2014)
Nappanee United Methodist Church
Nappanee, Indiana
January 3, 2014

By Richard Pletcher

My name is Richard Pletcher. I taught senior high Sunday school for two weeks and ran out of this church screaming. Max Gwin taught the same class here for 40 of his 90 years. Max’s patience made Job look neurotic.  We are here to celebrate St. Max. He was the ultimate observer of human beings around him and found humor in their well meaning attempts to help each other navigate this funny thing called life. This skill became his person and profession.

Max saw Jesus in everyone and everything, and enjoyed him most in the faces of our children. Frank Ramirez recently said, “There is nothing more quiet than a church without the sound of children.”

With never a harsh word, he somehow found inspiration and glee from the MYF antics of Phil and Rob Lehman, Vance and Stan Lopp, Jan and Gary Culp, John and Ron Kendall, George Freese, and, of course, yours truly who was banned from Cub Scout meetings in my own basement by my Den mother who was also my real mother.

I felt most accepted, cozy, and loved when in the presence of Max’s teaching and tutelage. To him I am thankful to know that Moses went to the top of Mt. Cyanide to get the 10 commandments, Joshua led the Hebrews in the battle of Geritol, and David fought the Finkelsteins.

Oscar Wilde said, “The best way to make children good is to make them happy.” Each of us felt we were the most important person in Max’s life, no one had more interest in our well being than he. Out of my immediate circle of Max’s prodigies came graduates of Drew Seminary, Princeton and two West Pointers, plus IU school of law, with a masters degree in theology, and an Emmy winner.

As the understated James Weygand said in his book “They Called it Nappanee: A History 1874 - 1974”, “From Nappanee have come more top-notch cartoonists per capita than from any other city in the world. That claim ought to stand up for quite some time.”

The six funny-paper men are recognized on the Indiana State Historical Bureau bronze marker placed  in 2005 appropriately in front of the Nappanee Public Library.

It reads, “Merrill Blosser was first Nappanee artist to gain national recognition as a professional cartoonist. Freckles and His Friends, his most popular cartoon, ran from 1915 to 1973, syndicated by Newspaper Enterprise Association. In 1965, National Cartoonists Society honored Blosser on fiftieth year of Freckles and its "wholesome entertainment."
Five other Nappanee artists became nationally recognized cartoonists. Henry Maust and Francis "Mike" Parks drew newspaper editorial cartoons; Bill Holman's best was Smokey Stover (1935-1973); Fred Neher's Life's Like That ran 1934-1977; Max Gwin drew Slim and Spud for Prairie Farmer 1955-1991. Town, training, and careers connected these artists.”
An asterisk would add that Max’s cartoons were published in nearly 300 additional publications including “The New Yorker,” “The Saturday Evening Post,” “Cosmopolitan”, and “Collier's,” which, he recalled with a chuckle, went out of business the following year. More importantly, it would mention that his attic contains four nail kegs filled with nearly 10,000 rejection letters. Did I mention perseverance?
It all started with a $2.00 cartooning course while in grade school, followed by a gag-writing course in high school, and after his hitch in the Navy during World War II, he attended Chicago’s Academy of Fine Arts and became the only one of the six cartoonists to have studied at the Art Institute. He and Betty, his wife of 68 years, lived in a 26’ trailer with no running water, no bathroom, and no car for five years.
While working for the “Prairie Farmer,” Betty finally convinced Max to look for an apartment with at least a bathroom. He said he never understood why a bathroom was so important to Betty, he guessed it was just the way women were. This started the sequence of events that led them to move back home with Max setting up shop in the next largest town south of Nappanee, Gwin’s corners. Max’s father, W.H. Gwin and his brothers owned land on three of the four corners of SR 19 and CR 1350. The intersection is still known to natives as a landmark. On the south west corner was Willard’s filling station. The closed one room station became his studio. Once again there was no outhouse.

Betty joined her two sisters and sang with Vivian and Carol as the Postma Sisters trio for many years; therefore, Kent and Dawn are blessed with the double vision of the artist and the musician and the ability to express it beautifully through their music and photographic creations.

In 1971 at the age of 16 Kent was the first lighting technician for Amish Acres theatre. He climbed a rope ladder and balanced on a plank flicking switches through 8 weeks of dinner theatre. Safety harnesses had not been invented. Twenty seven years later, he returned to music direct “The Sound of Music” in The Round Barn Theatre. Of all Amish Acres tour guides over the decades, Dawn’s infectious smile, a cross between Max and Betty’s, was, perhaps, the most memorable.

The comic strip, “The Adventures of Slim and Spud,” a pair of hired hands on the farm of Penny Pincher, began in 1921 in the prestigious “Prairie Farmer” magazine. A series of cartoonists and staff artists and even a Wisconsin farmer kept the strip alive until Max took over drawing it in 1956 and continued it for 36 years.

In those nearly four decades, Max retired farmer Pincher, Slim took over the farm and married Annie, who was the cook and housekeeper for Pincher, a widower. Spud stayed on as Slim's hired man. Slim and Annie had two children. Their son, the older, was named Pinch. The daughters name was Peach. They grew until the ages of 10 and 6 and remained at that age. They lived in Corn County in Illinois or Indiana. Max said in a 1991 article in the Prairie Farmer’s Sesquicentennial Commemorative edition, "Slim, Annie, and Spud have problems and victories like those of other contemporary farmers.”

In 1957 he hired me as his first intern. My job was to draw the squares and rectangles on art board so Max could fill them with his cartoons and captions. I used an ancient ruling pen that had a screw that adjusts the width of the line by moving the two shaped metal tips closer or further apart. India ink was dripped in between the two points, then flowed across the page at a defined rate; or so the book says. With my meager junior high left handed drafting skills gleaned from Dave McGrew, I was humbled every time the ink smeared under the triangle and T-square, which was nearly a 50/50 proposition. Although I was not relieved by Max, who just kept smiling and encouraging me, Max was relieved when, giving up my drafting dreams, I took a job laying carpet for my father using right handed tools where my rate of mis-cut wasted carpet equaled the percent of unusable art board I left in my wake.

With his gap toothed smile, Wrigley’s Spearmint chewing gum, (he could chew gum faster than a chain smoker could light a Camel), signature laugh and nod of the head, Max was an irresistible, endearing and lifelong influence on this Type A personality.

I never saw anyone happier at his work than Max, smiling out over the corn field, breathing life into those little inked squares.

After my return from college in 1965, Max and I collaborated in an advertising campaign for Pletcher Furniture where I confined myself to the written word and left the drawing to Max. This series of ads was named one of the top 15 campaigns in the country by the National Newspaper Advertising Association.

Max was inducted into Amish Acres Arts & Crafts Festival’s Hall of Fame in 2013 for his humor, common sense, influence and inspiration on young people.

This summer I acquired Max’s drafting table and donated it to the Evelyn Lehman Culp Heritage Collection in The Nappanee Center with the stipulation that a plaque read “Donated by Richard Pletcher, Max Gwin’s first and worst intern.” Luckily for Max I was followed by a prestigious cadre of apprentices including Fred Hunsberger, Jerry Ganshorn and Jim Clouse.

In the 1970s, my photograph was on the cover of “Prairie Farmer” for preserving the historic Stahly-Nissley-Kuhns farm that has become Amish Acres. A farmer acquaintance of mine said, “What the hell is he doing on there? He don't know nothing about farming!” I have never heard Max laugh louder or longer, still music to my ears.

I returned to Max’s “filling station” throughout his life, to rub shoulders with his serenity, modesty, and humility.

Betty noted in her recent Christmas card to us, that she and Max had been looking through some of his early cartoons they found in the attic and Max said, “I was better than I thought I was.” We knew that all along.

I struggle, as I expect most of us do, with many of the attributes that made Max a servant of God in this building and beyond; so I carry his belting leather briefcase with me, his name embossed on the front, as a daily reminder of this gentle man. Amen.

Nappanee’s Cartoonists
From “They Called It Nappanee: A History 1874 - 1974”
By James Weygand

First, in 1915 came Merrill Blosser who created “Freckles and his Friends”. It became the only comic strip in history to reach its Golden Anniversary under the personal direction of its original writer-cartoonist. His great nephew, Brock Blosser, was a fraternity brother of mine.
He lives on an island in Canada without electricity carving Black Forest gnomes. The artistic gene runs deep.

Henry Maust worked as a cartoonist for the “Cleveland Plain Dealer” along with Merrill Blosser, but switched to painting and commercial art where he made his mark. He created ads for Libbys, Swift, General Mills and Kraft, receiving in 1923 the Gold Medal for the best advertising painting of the year. His work was published in the “Saturday Evening Post” and “Womens Home Campanion.”

Francis (Mike) Parkes, studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Chicago, joined the “Cleveland Press,” ending up at the “San Francisco Call-Bulletin.” Copies of his editorial cartoons were requested by Winston Churchill, Harry Truman, J. Edgar Hoover and Richard Nixon.

Fred Neher in the 1920’s created “Us Moderns”, a humorous look at hospital babies for “American Magazine” and “Life’s Like That” appeared in 265 newspapers.

Bill Holman was hired in 1935 by the Chicago Tribune-New York News Syndicate to distribute his “Smokey Stover and the Smoke Eaters” strip. His Foo-car is the mascot of the Nappanee Fire Department and a full-sized replica of the two wheeled chief’s car is in the Evelyn Lehman Culp Heritage Collection in The Nappanee Center.

Max Gwin, the youngest of Nappanee’s school of cartoonists. While he modestly protests he has never hit the big league, as did the others, the facts appear to indicate otherwise. His regular comic strip “Slim and Spud,” which he drew from 1956 through 1996, appeared regularly in “Prairie Farmer,” the prestigious journal in its field. In addition to still another regular comic strip, his cartoons have appeared in two hundred ninety magazines, including many.


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