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Gene Payne, 1919-2010
posted October 22, 2010


Gene Payne, the first editorial cartoonist hired by the Charlotte Observer and the staffer that brought the publication its first Pulitzer Prize in 1968, died on October 14. He was 91 years old.

imageEugene Gray Payne Jr. was born in Charlotte and grew up just three blocks of his eventual newspaper employer. His father died when he was a toddler, and Payne's mother earned the family's living while Gene was cared for by a relative. She also encouraged him in his artistic endeavors, and like many children of his generation Payne was fascinated with newspaper comic strips and aimed to become a cartoonist. He went to school at Syracuse University, and enlisted in the armed services. He flew a B-29 in World War II, and was discharged in 1945.

He would later say that he was denied in his first (1946) attempt to find work at the Observer. He was employed in the immediate post-war years as a commercial artist and as a sales manager for a local dairy concern. He began submitting freelance cartoons to the Observer in 1957 and was hired in 1958 to a variety of tasks including cartoons. After a brief dalliance with the Birmingham News, Payne became a full-time Observer staffer in 1960, a position he held until 1971. It was during that time he won the Pulitzer and a number of other awards, including one from the journalism fraternity Sigma Delta Chi.

His winning Pulitzer submission, of work printed in the Observer during 1967, included cartoons that took on the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, and the country's absolute fascination with those two crucial points in American history. Remembrances at the Observer note that it was a 1965 cartoon featuring Winston Churchill after that towering figure's death that was likely his most popular. I believe Payne may have been the third cartoonist honored for a wider selection of work as opposed to a single cartoon, following the example set by Bill Mauldin (1945) and Paul Conrad (1964).

Payne left for seven years to fulfill the same role at a local television station before returning to the paper in 1978, first on on a four cartoons-per-week schedule and later on once-per-week status. His final cartoon was published in 2009.

He is survived by his wife, three sons and two daughters. He was buried October 22. Images from his Pulitzer-winning submission as well as photos of Payne looking very much like a mid-Century newspaperman are here.