From the staff

Column: Dwane Powell, a cartoonist with something to say, gets journalism honor

sriley@newsobserver.comApril 18, 2013 

  • Other honorees

    In addition to Dwane Powell, 10 others will be honored Sunday at a ceremony at the Carolina Inn in Chapel Hill. Nine, including Powell, will be inducted into the N.C. Halls of Fame in Journalism, in Advertising and in Public Relations. Also, two emerging leaders in their fields will receive the Next Generation Leadership Award

    Don Baer, chair and CEO of Burson-Marsteller, former senior adviser to President Bill Clinton.

    Jane Brown, scholar who researched media’s influence on teens, retired UNC J-school professor.

    Chris Hondros, the late, Pulitzer Prize-nominated photojournalist who covered world conflicts.

    Greg Johnson, president of BooneOakley advertising and digital agency. Next Generation Leadership Award.

    Jason Kilar, CEO of Hulu, former senior vice president at Amazon.com.

    Alan Murray, president of Pew Research Center, former Wall Street Journal Washington bureau chief, deputy managing editor and executive editor online.

    Wyndham Robertson, Fortune magazine editor specializing in financial and technology subjects for 25 years and former UNC system vice president for communications.

    Doug Smith, reporter, editor and columnist for The Charlotte Observer for more than four decades.

    Michael Steel, press secretary for U.S. House Speaker John Boehner. Next Generation Leadership Award.

    Stacy Wall, commercial director, winner of Directors Guild of America Commercials Award.

Like most readers, I first encountered Dwane Powell in the newspaper, not in person.

I had just moved here to work at The N&O. One morning in July 1986, his editorial cartoon depicted Ed Meese, then the U.S. attorney general, who had been leading a fairly aggressive commission looking into pornography.

Dwane’s take: Meese, emerging from a dark alley, readjusting his belt. He had just attacked a prone female figure labeled “Civil Liberties.”

The philosophical edge of the cartoon wasn’t that important. What caught my eye was that this guy had something to say, and he said it clearly.

He did it consistently enough during his 35 years here that come Sunday evening, he’ll be inducted into the N.C. Journalism Hall of Fame, along with a group that includes former Wall Street Journal exec Alan Murray and photographer Chris Hondros, who was killed on assignment in Libya in 2011.

“I owe a big debt of gratitude to the people who supplied the stories, the people who did the hard work,” Dwane said this week. “And also the politicians. You can always count on them for something.”

The hall induction is a fine honor, and it’s well-deserved. Dwane, 68, unleashed more than 8,000 cartoons during his career, most of them piercing a deserving politician or other member of the high and mighty. Some got angry. Some laughed. Nearly all asked for originals.

The Dwane vortex

That’s the Dwane Powell most readers know. But after I saw that Meese cartoon, I wanted to get to know Dwane. Little did I know what I was getting into.

Being a friend of Dwane is to be sucked into a vortex of humor, music, fun, photography, righteous anger and the kind of impish wit that keeps you alert. He doesn’t experience life; it oozes through him.

To say that his right brain is in charge is akin to saying there’s been a bit of pollen in the air lately. He’s like a Lab puppy let loose in a fresh meadow, uncertain of what spots to mark first or which tennis ball to retrieve.

Important dinners? He’s missed one or two. Forget that a paycheck is in his jacket pocket? Yep. Misplace the keys to the rental car during a ski trip? Check.

A friend once was at the YMCA near downtown Raleigh around lunchtime and saw Dwane there in a full sweat. “Say, Dwane, aren’t you supposed to be speaking at the governor’s mansion?”

Yes, he was. But he made it, a bit late, and by all accounts put on a fine show.

His friends have a word for this: Dwane-ing, meaning to move happily and unconcerned through life, guided by the help of others. And Dwane does get occasional direction, sometimes from buddies but mostly from his wife, Jan, an accomplished businesswoman who has nudged him for 42 years with remarkable calm.

Ideas still flow

At work, if you could call it that, a routine kept him grounded: Come to the office. Read some papers. Complain about the state of the world. Search for an idea. Go to the Y for a workout. Waste some of the early afternoon. Start worrying about deadline. Come up with a sprig of an idea. Test it on someone in the office. If they double over, go draw it, just in time.

Five times a week, for 35 years, that’s what Dwane did. He retired in 2009, but the ideas continue to flow. No bar napkin, no restaurant tablecloth, is safe from a Powell sketch. And now he has been coaxed back to The N&O, once a week, for a Sunday cartoon.

On Sunday night, he’ll share the spotlight in Chapel Hill. No, he hasn’t started working on his remarks.

sriley@newsobserver.com or 919-836-4940

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