Legendary ham-radio cartoonist Gil
I cut my professional teeth cartooning for QST and other ARRL publications through much of the 1980s, but I'll always be in the shadow of Phil Gildersleeve, W1CJD, the first and unquestionably the best ham-radio cartoonist who ever lived. It surprised me then to learn that practically no biographical information existed on Gil. In the mid-1990s I tried to correct that with this article, originally published in Hogan's Alley, a respected non-ham magazine devoted to the cartooning arts. Editor Tom Heintjes, who dabbled in shortwave listening himself, would occasionally publish articles about great cartoonists the general public had never heard about. Gil definitely qualified. This article originally appeared in Hogan's Alley #4.
Cartooning & Tuning Radios – the little-known career of cartoonist Phil Gildersleeve
By Jim Massara
For nearly 40 years, Phil Gildersleeve drew cartoons about his beloved hobby, amateur radio. He drew precious little else. In that time, he helped define the look of the nation’s leading ham-radio magazine, QST, and brought pleasure to thousands of his fellow hobbyists. But to most people—including those who published his work—he was an enigma.
Here’s what we do know: Gildersleeve was born in 1908 in Portland, Conn., descendant of a prominent family known for building ships. (The family was so prominent, in fact, that part of Portland was named Gildersleeve.)
After graduating from Middletown High School and briefly attending prep school, young Gildersleeve joined the United Fruit Company as a commercial radio operator on its boats. Presumably, this is where the radio bug bit Gildersleeve—and it bit hard. In the 1920s, radio enthusiasts were on the cutting edge of technology, much as computer enthusiasts are now. Gildersleeve became interested and soon earned his first amateur-radio license. In 1929, he contributed his first cartoon to QST. Eventually his nickname followed by his call sign—“Gil W1CJD”—appeared on cartoons every month. He remained a mainstay of the magazine until shortly before his death in 1966.
“Gil was absolutely integral to the character of QST, especially in the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s,” said Dave Newkirk, formerly an editor with QST and unofficial historian for the magazine’s parent organization, the American Radio Relay League.
Some of Gil’s earliest work filled space for the magazine. “The editors would feed him a one liner—‘W5 so-and-so is a policeman’—and he’d send back this funny picture of a guy with a Billy club,” Newkirk said.
Gil was probably best remembered, though, for illustrating “Jeeves” for longtime QST columnist Byron Goodman. (Goodman, W1DX, became a Silent Key in 2004 at age 93.) Inspired by the work of author P. G. Wodehouse, Jeeves was a balding British butler who was every amateur’s fantasy assistant. Having problems with your antenna tower—during a blizzard? Then send Jeeves up the tower to fix it, of course. According to Goodman, now 84 and living in Connecticut, “Jeeves was terrific, absolutely terrific.”
Aside from contributing some 1,500 cartoons to QST, Gildersleeve also worked as an editor—not as a cartoonist—for the Middletown (Conn.) Press. Still, his cartoons would appear there from time to time. He dabbled in photography and occasionally painted in the style of Winslow Homer—and that, apparently, was the extent of his artistic ambitions.
Except for that trip to see Walt Disney.
According to daughter Elizabeth and son Bill, now both in their 50s, Gildersleeve tried in 1933 or 1934 to get a job with Disney. “He drove to California in a car that he decorated with cartoons,” Bill said. Unfortunately, Disney wasn’t hiring at the time. Gildersleeve returned to Connecticut, and that was that. Disney’s loss was QST’s gain.
Why didn’t Gildersleeve try harder? “I think he just found this outlet and it supplemented his income, and it still gave him time to spend in his garden and do the things he liked to do,” Elizabeth said. “Plus, his love of ham radio had something to do with it.”
Which was something of an understatement. Gildersleeve lived and breathed amateur radio, building all of his own equipment and becoming a skillful Morse code operator. Elizabeth recalls that her father was so well known for his operating prowess that one day, one of her high-school classmates asked her if her dad was really “60-word-a-minute Phil”! Indeed he was. In fact, Gildersleeve was so adept with the code that while he drew his cartoons, he kept one ear tuned to his nearby radio receiver, listening to code transmissions as casually as one might listen to a talk show.
Until shortly before his death from lung cancer in November 1966, Gildersleeve continued to contribute to QST but worked entirely by mail. Apparently, he had little direct contact with QST staffers—so little that only one of them showed up for his funeral.
“I was retired when Gil died, but when I heard about his funeral I went to it,” recalls Goodman. “I was the only member of the headquarters staff who went to it. Of course, I was ex-staff, and it was during a working week, and it was in a town 30 miles away. But I met a bunch of old-time hams there who knew him, and they thought I was down there to be a pallbearer because I was from the League. And, hell, I was the only guy from headquarters.”
How did that happen? “I don’t think they knew what a gem they had,” Goodman said. “It’s just like that.” QST did print an obituary in January 1967, but it discussed mostly the obvious, what a wonderful artist he was. The article offered little biographical detail.
Oddly enough, Gil’s cartoons lived on for another 10 years after his death through reuse in the pages of QST and associated publications. (In fact, when I earned my first ham-radio license and began subscribing to QST in 1973, Gil’s cartoons appeared so frequently that it never occurred to me that he had been dead for six years!) Finally, a 1976 re-design of QST rendered Gil’s Depression-era style more anachronistic than ever, and his work was phased out.
In 1986, the publishers of QST released a paperback compilation of Gildersleeve’s best work, largely unannotated. Today, all that remains of his work at QST’s offices is a wall display—where, ironically, at least one drawing by another illustrator is credited to him. The rest of his illustrations still in QST’s possession are reportedly scattered about the offices in storage, awaiting a long-overdue cataloguing and restoration.