He và his business partner started in a basement, recruited a Yale student cartoonist named Garry Trudeau, và built the largest company of its kind.

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John McMeel, left, in an undated photo with Garry Trudeau, the creator of “Doonesbury,” and Kathleen Andrews, a longtime executive sầu of the company Mr. McMeel founded with Ms. Andrews’s husb&, James, in the late 1960s.Credit...via Andrews McMeel Publishing

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 — và grew inkhổng lồ the largest newspaper syndication company in the world, died on July 7 at his trang chủ 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 & Jim Andrews were holding day jobs in the late 1960s — Mr. McMeel as a salesman for Hall, a newspaper syndication company in Thủ đô 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 và corporate và 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 nội dung 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 quarterbachồng named B.D. — the character who became the world-weary warrior in Mr. Trudeau’s “Doonesbury” — & the partners had khổng lồ wait for hlặng to lớn graduate, and for the threat of the military draft khổng lồ pass, before signing hyên ổn up.) Mr. McMeel, a waggish & charming law school dropout, was the salesman.


It was Mr. McMeel’s job to explain to lớn staid newspaper editors raised on “Beetle Bailey” why they needed lớn freshen up their pages with contemporary voices lượt thích Mr. Trudeau’s. When “Bull Tales” morphed into lớn “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,” Jyên Squires, a former editor of The Chicago Tribune & The Orlanbởi Sentinel, said in an unpublished oral history of Universal. “Newspapers were still trying khổng lồ live in the 18th century. We still had ‘hot type.’ Our idea of comic strips was ‘Little Orphan Annie’ & ‘Diông xã Tracy.’”

Around the time they were wooing Mr. Trudeau, the partners had also been courting Garry Wills, the author & journamenu (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 Đánh Giá, William F. Buckley Jr., had counseled hyên ổn 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 giới. 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 sầu accepted any terms lớn get into lớn a paper the next day. I called Jim & left a message. I flew khổng lồ Kent State and I filed that day.”


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

“They thought it was their job lớn make writers & cartoonists happy và rich và 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. Kilpatriông xã and Mr. Buckley were others — whom Mr. Andrews và Mr. McMeel picked up in 1979 in an arrangement under which Time Inc., which owned The Star, invested in Universal và gave sầu it the rights lớn syndicate the newspaper’s columnists.

The linchpin of the khuyến mãi was that “Doonesbury,” a Pulitzer Prize winner that had been running in The Washington Post, would move sầu lớn 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 bachồng khổng lồ The Post on his hands & 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 inkhổng lồ newspapers; the company was also doing all sorts of unheard-of things, like granting Mr. Trudeau the rights lớn his work, forgoing the immense profits that would have sầu come from licensing đơn hàng.

Universal did the same for Bill Watterson, the graphic designer who created “Calvin và Hobbes,” the wildly popular strip featuring the rebellions of a 6-year-old boy (named for a 16th-century theologian) & his sidekiông chồng, a stuffed tiger (named for a 17th-century philosopher). The company also gave sầu its stars time off: Mr. Trudeau, Mr. Watterson và 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 & the grind of everyday life, said that Mr. Andrews had been the heart and soul of the company and Mr. McMeel the fireworks.

“Cartoonists & 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 Bkết thúc, Ind. His father, James, was the doctor for the University of Notre Dame’s football team; his mother, Naongươi (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 Indiamãng cầu University before dropping out khổng lồ 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 trang chính khổng lồ 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, & Ms. McMeel, baông chồng in New York, read submissions. When Mr. Andrews died suddenly in 1980 at 44, Ms. Andrews returned khổng lồ the company as chief executive sầu 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 1990s. By then Mr. McMeel had signed up Dear Abby, Erma Bombeck, Mr. Larson, Roger Ebert và Pat Oliphant, the arch Australian-born political cartoonist.


In addition khổng lồ her, Mr. McMeel is survived by three daughters, Maureen McMeel Carroll, Suzanne McMeel Glynn và Bridget McMeel Rohmer, & nine grandchildren.

Indefatigably sunny, Mr. McMeel had the optimism — và the stamina — of a true salesman. Jim Davis, the creator of the misanthropic mèo Garfield, first met Mr. McMeel at an American Booksellers Association convention in 1981. Mr. McMeel approached hlặng 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 hvà 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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