Office of the VP for Communications – Keeping alumni and friends connected to U-M

The accidental cartoonist grows up

“I couldn’t draw at all”

Cathy Guisewite

Cathy Guisewite, BA ’72. (Image courtesy of Cathy Guisewite.)

On the first day the award-winning comic strip Cathy ran in 66 newspapers nationwide, its 26-year-old creator hid in the ladies’ room at a Detroit-area ad agency.

“I was so embarrassed somebody would see the strip and that the artists at the agency would ridicule my artwork,” confesses Cathy Guisewite, BA ’72, who was then a vice president at W.B. Doner & Co. “I couldn’t draw at all!”

The year was 1976, and the Age of Feminism was in full swing. Young women in their 20s were torn between pursuing careers and mothballing marriage — or tying the knot, raising kids, and forever relinquishing the keys to the C-suite.

“I had worked so hard to present myself as a serious, professional, working woman,” Guisewite says. “Then out comes this comic strip where the main character, Cathy, is sobbing over some guy. I couldn’t pretend it was somebody else. It was horrible!”

At the time, Guisewite thought she would stay in the advertising business forever. Becoming a cartoonist was never in the cards.

But when the comic strip’s popularity grew to a tipping point, she ended up quitting her job at Doner, moving to California, and producing Cathy for 34 years. At its peak, Cathy appeared in almost 1,400 papers. She finally pulled the plug in October 2010.

“An icky new phase”

Guisewite is the first to admit she flunked retirement. So, now she’s out with a new book, Fifty Things that Aren’t My Fault: Essays from the Grown-up Years (Penguin Random House, 2019)

With her lighthearted anecdotal approach, Guisewite finds wry humor in the quirks and quandaries that she, at age 69, and other Baby Boomers now confront. Many are squeezed between caring for rebellious offspring and set-in-their-ways parents while dealing with the annoying “H-es” of aging ― hip replacements, hypertension, hernias, hair loss, and hearing aids.

“Many women who grew up reading my comic strip about the tortuous dating, dieting, and dreaming years are in the same spot I am right now, trying to navigate this icky new phase,” Guisewite says. “I wrote my book because I needed to get it out of me and onto paper. I also wanted to reconnect with readers who are going through these difficult transitions. I hoped my book would feel like a friend to women, just as my comic strip had.”

A campus wallflower

Guisewite book cover

Guisewhite’s long list of titles also includes What Do You Mean, I Still Don’t Have Equal Rights??!! and May I Borrow Your Husband and Baby? (Penguin Random House, 2019.)

After a sheltered childhood in Midland, Mich., Guisewite yearned to attend a college where her world could be expanded. So she packed her neatly ironed blouses, short skirts, and knee sox in her suitcase and headed to Ann Arbor.

“At Michigan, I was introduced to different cultures, races, and ideas,” recalls Guisewite, who soon ditched her short skirts for baggy, ratty jeans, much to her parents’ dismay. “The campus was so big and diverse. Starting classes in 1968 when the world was going through turmoil and change was eye-opening for me.” She says that bigger world vision helped her become a more compassionate, open-minded listener who made an effort to tune into the people, places, and things around her.

As a coed, Guisewite describes herself as being shy and pretty solitary. She never walked in a protest march on the Diag or chugged a beer at the P-Bell.

“The most rebellious thing I did was join the Delta Delta Delta sorority,” Guisewite says. “And the most impactful thing I did was work at Drake’s Sandwich Shop where I gained 40 pounds eating leftover grilled pecan rolls and milkshakes.”

Her angst over her unwanted weight gain, dieting failures, and poor body image later provided grist for her daily comic strip.

A bizarre fluke

Guisewite majored in English literature, but took only one creative-writing class. She considered it too easy and too much fun for a serious-minded student. The idea never occurred to her to sign up for courses she was interested in.

“I thought college was supposed to be hard, so I took classes such as anthropology and economics where I was doomed to failure,” she explains. However, her creative-writing professor saw great potential and creativity in her work and encouraged her to continue writing: “That stamp of approval has stayed with me for my whole life.”

Ironically, two “bizarre flukes” ― an advertising workshop that led to two job offers and an elective course in lettering at the-now Stamps School of Art & Design ― ushered her into the advertising business and later played out in her comic strip.

“There’s nothing I’m more proud of than graduating from the University of Michigan,” Guisewite says. “I loved the school and the experience.”

Waiting for Mister Right

After graduation in 1972, Guisewite quickly climbed the ladder of career success while her love life languished in the dumps. She was overweight, unloved, and miserable.

“I had two powerful role models, both named Betty ― the Betty Crocker of my youth and the Betty Friedan of my future,” Guisewite laments. “I was caught in the middle between the traditionalists and the Women’s Libbers. I continued to gain weight eating one Betty’s chocolate fudge cake while I tried to digest the other Betty’s feminist ideas.”

Guisewite consoled herself by writing in her diary while waiting for Mister Right to call. He never did.

Growing up, she had inherited her father’s sense of humor and his ability to see the funny side of life, even when things looked bleak. It helped her cope.

“One night I drew a picture of how pathetic I looked,” Guisewite says. “It made me feel so much better to see a little drawing summing up my misery. So I started doing that a lot, capturing the worst of my day, my most pathetic moments, in little scribble pictures.”

Guisewite often sent the drawings home to her parents. Her mother thought the scribbles had the makings of a comic strip and went to the library to do some research. She sent her daughter a list of possible comic-strip syndicates and an ultimatum: You submit your drawings or I will.

"Wake Me Up When I'm a Size 5" book cover

(Andrews McMeel Publishing, January 1985.)

“I had no intention of doing a comic strip, but just to get my mom off my back, I sent a package of my drawings to the name at the top of the list,” Guisewite says.

That name was Universal Press Syndicate, and they signed her up immediately. The strip debuted on Nov. 22, 1976.

“Once I started the strip, I had a deadline 365 days a year,” she says. “My only goal was to get through the day with a sense of humor.”

In 1992, Guisewite adopted her daughter, Ivy, and five years later, she married screenwriter Christopher Wilkinson, who has a son, Cooper. (They separated in 2008.) Her parents, Bill and Anne, left Midland and retired in Florida.

The trials and tribulations of being sandwiched between two generations created a wellspring of material for Guisewite’s comic strip. The imaginary Cathy, who struggled through the “four basic guilt groups” of life ― food, love, mom, and work ― soon gained a loyal following of adoring readers.

By the mid-1990s, the strip appeared in nearly 1,400 newspapers. Guisewite received an Emmy Award for Outstanding Animated Program for the TV special “Cathy” in 1987 and the Reuben Award for Outstanding Cartoonist of the Year in 1992. She was a frequent guest on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson. In 1994, her alma mater asked her to deliver the spring commencement address at the Big House. It poured rain, as it turned out.

Back to the drawing board

Were Cathy Guisewite to go back to the drawing board and recreate her daily strip in 2020, the comic would be far different. For one thing, the concept of “having it all” has changed over the years.

“When I was writing the strip, ‘having it all’ meant having a job and a baby,” she says. “For the young woman today, the pressure to do and be everything is overwhelming. Having it all means having a child and a big career ― plus being a devoted parent, a school board member, an investment expert, an environmental activist, a global change-maker, a romantic partner, a weekend yoga instructor, an online entrepreneur, and a size 6.”

Differences in the way the Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram generation communicates, meets and dates, as well as their expectations for intimacy, have thrown another monkey wrench into already-complicated human relationships.

The bra-burners of Guisewite’s generation have given way to the Victoria’s Secret lingerie and head-to-toe Spanx wearers of her daughter’s generation. Magazine cover stories embrace women of all shapes and sizes while the advertisements and articles inside still celebrate svelte models and dispense advice for removing unwanted inches from one’s thighs.

Graphic from Guisewite book cover

The book of essays joins Guisewite’s other titles on the shelf, which include some 60 compilations of her comic strips. (Penguin Random House, 2019.)

“In their hearts and souls, a lot of women still don’t feel great about themselves all the time, but there’s less opportunity to express their feelings,” Guisewite says.

That’s why humor, in her mind, remains an important emotional equalizer that bonds people, especially women, together. The ability to have a sense of humor about the little things is what gives everyone the strength to take on the big things, she insists.

“I loved doing the comic strip, but there was only so much I could say in those four little boxes,” Guisewite says. “It was a dream come true to get to write in essay form in my new book. To have the time and space to talk more thoughtfully about what so many of us have gone through, and are going through now. To help us all step back, look at our lives, and celebrate the many, many things that aren’t our fault!”

(The generous and gifted Cathy Guisewite created the original artwork of her co-ed self in front of Drake’s exclusively for Michigan Today. Thank you, Cathy. Go Blue!)

Comments

  1. Kirt Nichols, MD, MHA - Med School 1966

    Remember the 60’s in A2 well including Drakes, football Saturday, Phi Rho Sigma and interned at the old St Joe’s

    Reply

  2. michael housefield - 72

    just found out that we were at Michigan during the same years…wish i had known her back then.

    Reply

    • David Rives - LSA '65

      Yeah, with 30,000 undergrads, good luck with that! It’s like when I left UM in 1968 and moved to California. People would say, “Oh, you’re from Detroit? Did you know……?”

      Reply

  3. Cheryl Hodges-Selden - 1978

    I would love to buy the Drake’s/Cathy image! Will it be available as cards?? Who DIDN’T gain the freshman 15 at Drake’s??

    Reply

    • Nancy Wilkins - 1977

      Great article. I’m looking forward to reading her book. I spent my time at Drake’s buying candy for the young man (jujus for Terry) I was interested in instead of enjoying them myself.

      Reply

    • Jennifer Jaruzelski - 1983

      I too love the Drake’s illustration! Perfectly sums up my UM experience (Drake’s alas closed shortly afterward). Would also love to purchase a card or print

      Reply

      • Deborah Holdship

        Hi, Jennifer — The writer is forwarding your request to Cathy G. and we will keep you posted. Ed.

        Reply

    • Deborah Holdship

      Hi, Cheryl: The writer is forwarding your request to Cathy G. and we will keep you posted. Ed.

      Reply

  4. Doris Rubenstein - 1971

    I was on campus at the same time as Cathy, and had the same issue with Drake’s grilled pecan rolls as she did. Those are memories that have dwelled for over 50 years on my hips and belly. But I wouldn’t change them for anything!

    Reply

  5. DANIEL DEKOK - 1982

    I too have fond memories of my pre-concert ritual as a member of the Men’s Glee Club–a limeade at Drakes. Nice article about Ms. Guisewite. One of my favorite comic strips. The drawing in the article is now my computer screen background.

    Reply

  6. Mary Lu Barth - 1968, 1972

    This article called to me because I loved Drakes AND the comic strip. Looking forward to getting her book!

    Reply

  7. David Rives - LSA '65

    The best thing about Drake’s — aside from the high-backed booths, where, once you were in one, the rest of the world ceased to exist — was the one thing I never bought there, and that must have been an exclusive with them, since I’ve never seen them anywhere else: pieces of candy that looked like stones, pebbles, each with its own unique surface pattern.. Does anyone else remember those?

    Reply

  8. David Rives - '65

    As long as we’re reminiscing about Drake’s, can those of us old enough to remember give a little shout-out to Red’s Rite Spot, on E. Liberty, where people got in a snit, in 1964, when a breakfast of two eggs, toast and coffee suddenly went from 38 cents all the way up to 43!?

    Reply

  9. Cynthia Cook - 1971

    At the same time Cathy G. was at Michigan, I was also a “Drake’s Girl”, I remember we “studied” for our English finals by shouting out literary quotes and identifying the author as we worked grilling those pecan rolls. Hope she remembers it too.

    Reply

  10. Lynn Bloom - 1956,57,63

    Loved the strip, look forward to reading the book. Which smart writing prof encouraged your creative work–and in what way(s)? When I was a UM undergrad, my violin professor urged me to become a creative writer. Although he had never read a word I’d written, he was right–on both scores!

    Reply

  11. Noel Tibbals - 1974

    Wonderful article about you and the genesis of your comic strip. Thanks for referencing my Uncle Truman and Aunt Mildred’s “Sandwich Shop”, Drakes. I also worked there as a kid, and the central campus was my play ground. My required fix from childhood through my student years at the “U” was the grilled pecan roll (baked and delivered by Quality Bakery on Main St.) washed down with that special limeade. I love your print of Drake’s, and would like to purchase a couple for my twin cousins-son and daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Drake Tibbals. Good luck on your new book.

    Reply

    • Deborah Holdship

      Hi, Noel: The writer is forwarding your note to Cathy G. and we will keep you posted. Ed.

      Reply

  12. Lynn Winstead - 1972

    My grandparents owned Drakes. I grew up in there “helping”, then working alongside my grandparents until the mid 70’s. LOVE the Cathy strip, wish I’d known the connection earlier! Cream cheese and olive bagels…… the print is priceless.

    Reply

  13. Marci Woolson - 81

    Ack. Ack. Ack. Miss both the strip and Drake’s a lot! I had no idea the real Cathy had such an Ann Arbor connection.

    Reply

  14. Kathy Zavela - Michigan-1972 & 1975

    I loved the comic strip Cathy. It was refreshing and I could identify with so many of Cathy’s characteristics. Thank you for providing a wonderful forum for us to laugh, cry and commiserate with. Thank you.

    Reply

  15. Don Smolenski - 1977

    I relate to Cathy so well. I have unsuccessfully retired twice and am still consulting. I also have an adopted son. And I see the power of a sense of humor (I actually claim a sense of humor on my resume – and if someone doesn’t like that, I don’t want to work with them!).

    Reply

  16. Jo Ann Shaw - 1950

    The Drakes cartoon caught my eye because my uncle owned it. I was too old to identify with the cartoon strip but I was inspired to read her book and I can certainly identify with her parents and all the efforts she and her sisters made to make their lives “better”. Hi to my cousins Noel and Lynn.

    Reply

  17. Jim McGowan - '72

    I always enjoyed “Cathy”. Must be something about her “Michigan” identity that I well related to. I too was of the class of ’72. Perhaps we shared Professor Donald Hall’s ‘Yeats and Joyce” Jan – May ’72. I had no idea she too was from Michigan and ’72 no less. Finely written, enjoyable article. I also know a tri-delt very well.

    Reply

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