Cartoonists I Dig – Ford Button

I got home from teaching at about 1:00 pm, flipped my date book to this week and there it was. Today is the anniversary of my friend Ford Button’s death. He died in 1995 just before his 70th birthday.

Ford was the first cartoonist I ever met. (He always said that with a name like “Ford Button” he had to be a cartoonist.) He was a grade school art teacher who cartooned on the side, but did a lot of work. (In his heart, I think he was always a cartoonist first but, from what I’ve heard, he was a heck of a teacher.) He was primarily a gag cartoonist who had done a fair amount of “general” work, but what he was known for was his educational cartoons. That is, cartoons about education. (You can see some of his work in this on-line textbook.) He’d be the first to tell you that he wasn’t a ground breaking cartoonist. I think he said he worked in the “Grand Rapids Style” meaning that anyone, anywhere could understand it.

I met him when I was in college, and even though he was almost 40 years older than me, we became friends. And even though I was just an art student/wanna-be cartoonist, he treated me as an equal. During the 10+ years we knew each other, he was always encouraging. I showed him my meager work and he though it was great. He introduced me to the Upstate Cartoonists League of America, or UCLA (a rag tag group of cartoonists that met once a year). He and I ended up reviving the group and started having regular meetings in Rochester and Buffalo, as well as a newsletter and an annual cartoon art show. He wrote my sponsorship letter for the National Cartoonists Society. I remember excitedly talking to him about sending the weekly strip I’d been doing out to the syndicates for the first time. All in all, he was my mentor…and it was sad that he didn’t get to see me become a full-time cartoonist, get syndicated and get into MAD.

I was honored that his family asked me to speak about the cartooning side of his life at his memorial service.

All the cartoonists of my generation that knew Ford marveled at his age when he died. He was always so full of life they just couldn’t believe it.

I hope that I’m like that when I get old.

(I dedicated my Bo Nanas collection APPEELING to Ford as well as to the-best-friend-a-cartoonist-could-have Tim Rosenthal and Buffalo-area cartoonist Bob Bindig.)

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16 Responses to “Cartoonists I Dig – Ford Button”

  1. Margaret Shulock Says:

    Thanks for this piece about Ford Button, John; I am unfamiliar with his work and found your background on the “ragtag gang” interesting.I love your dedication to Tim and Bob; two of the finest gentlemen I’ve had the honor to know.

  2. KOVALESKI Says:

    Thanks, Margaret. They were all incredibly sweet guys and are dearly missed.

  3. Dennis Says:

    I was talking to my wife lately about my elementary art teacher, Ford Button and thinking about him a lot lately. Years ago, my mother told me he died. He was definitely one of the greatest teachers I’ve ever had. He had the greatest cartoons. He also took regular wax crayons and made a beautiful scene of a cabin surrounded by fields. I went to Neil Armstrong School (where he taught) from kindergarten through sixth grade. He let me make any creation I wanted to from clay and encouraged us all to try our best and not worry about mistakes. He told us, when we were out of primary grades, not to only make pinch pots,but to use our imaginations and create something more. He would say that he didn’t like using erasers on pencils when drawing. Instead, he would turn what looked like a “mistake” into something that seemed as if it was supposed to be there. He always welcomed me to come in for art supplies and was always encouraging. He always seemed impressed by things we created. He displayed the art of a colleague of his who painted a race car after his favorite stock car driver died in a crash. He mentioned that he refused a bribe as a cop. He was in charge of our safety patrol the whole time I was there. He also taught me to spread glue with my pinky so I could still pick things up, cut, and assemble things without making a mess. He also arranged to have Birdie Button come and show home made wildlife movies. He is my all-time favorite elementary school teacher!

  4. Dennis Says:

    I thought I saw some of his cartoons at the Rochester Museum of Play

  5. KOVALESKI Says:

    Thanks so much for sharing that.

  6. KOVALESKI Says:

    We were part of a show there in the early 90’s. Maybe that was it.

  7. Mike Rider Says:

    I knew Ford Button in the early to mid 1950s, when when he was the art teacher in my elementary school, where my mother also taught. Along with being a great teacher and a fine cartoonist, he was also a talented jazz guitar player. He became good friends with my Dad, who was also a musician and singer, and I remember more than one terrific jam jession in my house during those days. I was eleven years old, learning to play the clarinet, and trying to sound like Benny Goodman, and they would let me try to sit in with them. He was just as patient and kind backing up a neophyte clarinet player as he was in the classroom. He didn’t talk about it much, but I recall that he was a decorated soldier in WWII. He gave me a pair of German Army binoculars that he had “liberated” during the war. One of the nicest people I’ve ever met. It was good to come across your story.

  8. KOVALESKI Says:

    Thanks for sharing your memories of Ford, Mike.

  9. Connie Button Liberty Says:

    John I just found this out of the blue…WOW I am crying tears of joy as I write this…Thank you to you and everyone for the wonderful comments on my dad. A day does not go by that I don’t think of him. I miss him so much, but as I look at my children…Oh he lives on with them. John he loved you dearly.. He spoke of you all the time. Your talent, your friendship. He loved to teach. He was the same at home..we had no coloring books..we had to create our own design not color in someones. I am now a preschool teacher and am so blessed to have had parents who gave me so much in support to be my own person. I use the humor with my students as I watched Dad with his..I give hugs just like he did…Dad or Ford(loved his name) was truly a gift to us, who is missed but he is still with us all. He gave us all a little bit of him that we all hold dear in our hearts. God bless you John..this was such a wonderful gift to read and to share…Thank You

    Connie Button Liberty

  10. KOVALESKI Says:

    It was my pleasure, Connie. I was really lucky to have gotten to know your dad.

  11. Valerie Says:

    I looked up to Ford while I was growing up. I remember how wonderful he made everyone feel when he was around. When I was in 5th grade, Ford came to my class during “Show and Tell” and taught the entire class how to draw cartoons. He is someone I will never forget and made a difference in my life. I was glad to see that others remembered him the same and took the time to write of him.

  12. KOVALESKI Says:

    He was indeed a great guy. Thanks for sharing.

  13. Kristin Says:

    I never met Ford in person but he did cartoons for the magazine for which I worked, and he was a joy to work with. I was cleaning out some old computer files today and found a little essay I had written in 1987 about him and how he helped me realize how valuable our friends are, even ones we have never met. So i decided to google his name and found your post. Isn’t amazing how some people are still alive, long after they are gone?

  14. Darlene Orzechowski Says:

    Recently I came across a drawing of a simple pig , we had saved but didnt remember getting. I dont remember where we got it. Its signed Ford Button . Should we save it? Love to hear from you. Thank You Darlene

  15. KOVALESKI Says:

    It’s true. And I was reminded of that when I was visiting Ford’s wife recently.

  16. KOVALESKI Says:

    I don’t see why not, although I would doubt that it has much monetary value.

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