Bil Keane, the creator of the much-loved Family Circus comic strip, died Tuesday of congestive heart failure, his son confirmed on Wednesday. He was 89.
Keane was born in Philadelphia in 1922 and began drawing in high school, around the same time that he dropped the second L from his first name just to be different, The Associated Press reported. He and his wife, Thelma, whom he met in Australia, moved to Arizona in 1958 and started a family, which grew to include a daughter and four sons.
Keane is survived by his five children. Thelma Keane, who was the inspiration for the mother in Family Circus, died of Alzheimer's disease in 2008.
Family Circus, which Keane created in 1960 and which still appears in nearly 1,500 newspapers, depicted a family very similar to his own. I was portraying the family through my eyes, he told the East Valley Tribune in 1998. Everything that's happened in the strip has happened to me.
Family Circus was admired for its unbending focus on family values -- not in the sense of social conservatism, but in the sense of the intangible things that hold families together.
For instance, one of Keane's early strips showed Jeffy coming out of the living room late at night in pajamas and Mommy and Daddy watching television, and Jeffy says, 'I don't feel so good. I think I need a hug,' Keane recalled in a 1995 interview with The Associated Press. And suddenly I got a lot mail from people about this dear little fella needing a hug, and I realized that there was something more than just getting a belly laugh every day.
Family Circus: Jokes, and More
The cartoon was almost always funny, but there was more to it than jokes.
In one strip, Dolly and PJ are watching Billy through the living room window as he climbs precariously from a fence onto a tree, and Dolly remarks, Billy better hope his guardian angel didn't get laid off. In another, Jeffy walks in the front door with his schoolbooks, looking forlorn, and says, Boy, I spent the whole day learning from my mistakes.
One of the most consistent themes was the unintentionally funny or poignant things children say: When I get older, will I have to pretend I like coffee? Do I hafta be a Boy Scout to do a good deed? Know what, Mommy? Sometimes you're as much fun as our babysitter!
Laughs are good, Keane said, but I would rather have the readers react with a warm smile, a tug at the heart or a lump in the throat as they recall doing the same things in their own families.