Mort Walker's journey to the Billy Ireland museum

Peter Tonguette
Mort Walker and Lucy Caswell in the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum

For connoisseurs of comics, the death of Mort Walker on Sunday came as a blow. The acclaimed 94-year-old cartoonist was responsible for creating funny-page fixtures such as Beetle Bailey and Hi and Lois.

For leaders of Ohio State University’s Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum, the loss hit especially close to home. Since 2008, the museum has held around 200,000 items—like comic books, toys and original character art for Dick Tracy and Garfield, among others—that were once part of Walker’s now-defunct International Museum of Cartoon Art.

“He was charming, he was funny, he was a great storyteller, he was someone that you would just want to sit down and have a conversation with,” Jenny Robb, the Billy Ireland museum curator, says of Walker’s personality. “He was also very knowledgeable about the history of cartoons and comics.”

In addition to his own cartooning, Walker long ago established himself as an expert and enthusiast of the art form. From 1974 to 2002, Walker ran several incarnations of his museum, whose sole purpose was to celebrate cartoon art.

“He felt there should be a permanent place where people could always go and see this kind of art up on the wall, not in a book and not on a table in a special collections library,” says Lucy Caswell, the founding curator of the Billy Ireland museum.

Walker’s cartoon art museum was located in Boca Raton, Florida, until the institution was shuttered in 2002 and its materials were sent to Connecticut, where Walker resided.

“Since the art was in storage for a number of years, we had made overtures to him and his board about what the long-term disposition of the materials would be,” Caswell says.

But since the Billy Ireland, which was then called the Cartoon Research Library, had not yet relocated to its present digs in Sullivant Hall, Walker was reluctant to part with his prized cartoons. “Mort wasn’t really interested in talking to us because we didn’t have a museum,” Caswell says.

In the late 2000s, when OSU’s cartoon library hatched plans to move to the new venue, one with ample space for exhibits, Walker reconsidered.

“My successor, Jenny Robb, and I went to Connecticut and talked with him and his family,” Caswell says. “Then he and his wife, Catherine, came for a visit and we walked through the Sullivant Hall spaces before they were renovated. ... It was at that point when we could say, ‘We are going to have not one, not two, but three galleries devoted to cartoon art,’ that he made the commitment.”

The impact was immediate. According to Caswell, the acquisition of materials from the International Museum of Cartoon Art “basically doubled” the museum’s collection.

“The IMCA collection brought things that we didn’t have,” Caswell says, including animation art and a variety of work by international cartoonists.

“It’s fun for us to have cartoons from Eastern Europe and Egypt and places that we didn’t have the possibility of acquiring work,” she continues. “It’s a wonderful addition to the holdings.”

After the opening of the overhauled Ireland museum in 2013, Walker made treks to the institution, where his legacy as a distinguished cartoonist and a devotee of the craft seems secure.

“I am so honored that the Walker family, in the obituary that will be at the funeral home site ... have asked, instead of flowers, that contributions be sent to the Billy Ireland,” Caswell says.

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