I just found out my old Jr. High School art teacher passed away… five years ago. I’m not sure what made me google his name this evening, but I was sad to read this biography:

Autobiography of Fred Crump, Jr. Fred Crump, Jr was born in Houston, Texas on June 7, 1931. He received a Master’s Degree in Art from Sam Houston College, in 1961. He moved to Palm Springs, California and taught art at a junior high school for 32 years. After retiring from his teaching career,he began a career as an author and illustrator of Children’s books. In addition to teaching, writing, and illustrating, Mr Crump also wrote for magazines such as “Humpty Dumpty, Playmate, and Turtle.” Mr. Crump brought the fairy tales of childhood to African-American children in a way with which they can personally identify. Mr. Crump died, October 29, 2005, at the age of 72. Crump, whose final book, Three Kings and a Star, was released a month before he death. He devoted the final chapter in his life to retelling popular children’s stories for African-American audiences. Mr. Crump had more than 40 titles.

Mr. Crump was a GIANT impact/influence on me to want to become a professional cartoonist. I was going into my 7th grade year and my family had just moved to Southern California from Pennsylvania after the Volkswagen plant where my Dad worked had closed down and moved to Mexico. I remember it being a scary time in our family not really sure where my Dad would be working, there was no real job security for him anywhere at the time. I remember HATING the idea of wanting to go to school… that was until I stepped into Mr. Crump’s art room at Raymond Cree middle school in Palm Springs, CA.

When you walked into his art classroom, it was as if you had just walked into a life sized comic strip. Giant full color paper machete statues of Calvin and Hobbes, Opus, Bill the Cat, Broom Hilda, Snoopy, Charlie Brown lined the classroom, almost like statues of greek gods. It was quite an environment! It was here I was first introduced to Berke Breathed’s work, Bloom County was  Mr. Crump’s favorite comic strip.  He introduced us to TONS of art in that class. From studying classic painters like Monet and Rembrandt to learning paper machete and molding clay sculptures. All in 7th grade!!! Another project I remember him teaching us which has served me well over the years was how to enlarge small photos or comics into bigger murals by using the grid technique. A also made a wicked paper machete lifesize batman bust.

Mr. Crump how I remember him

Mr. Crump talked in a southern Texas accent. He always wore a brown apron that seemed to be like one of those Dungeons & Dragons bottomless bags where he could make any tool appear from. Instead of a desk he had a podium he would sit behind and work on his illustrations while he taught class. He was mildly eccentric, I remember him being in love with Madonna as well, he had a button on his apron that said “I Love Madonna” – He totally had the hots for her. This was at the height of her popularity in 1989 or so….

I have one big memory of Mr. Crump that I never really understood until years later. I think I was goofing off in his class and working on something else that wasn’t project related and he pulled me out of the classroom for a hallway talk. I remember him asking me if art was something I really wanted to pursue. And he grilled me with all these rapid fire questions that I didn’t really have answers for. But he told me that he could see that I was different than the other kids in his class and if I wanted to, I could be a successful cartoonist. He pulled out a #2 pencil that was perfectly sharp and asked if I had a pencil on me, I didn’t… “If you’re going to be a cartoonist, you always need to have your tools on you. You always need to be ready.”

“Always keep a sharp pencil. Do you understand?” He was quite intense with this statement- I didn’t really understand at all, but I replied-  “yeah, sure… sharp pencil, I get it…”

He was also working as a Children’s book illustrator at the time of teaching. He would use his sample pages to teach us what went into good illustration and all of the details. He specialized in making fairy tale books for African American children, retelling African Folklore and also retelling classic fairy tales with African American children in the roles of the main characters, because he believed it was silly for all the old fairy tales and princesses to only be white children. He thought it sent the wrong message to minority children to see that only white people had a prince charming or happy ending. I recall his statements on that stuff really striking me, as I had never really thought about race before… let alone all the characters being white! He really encouraged us to make sure we learned to draw people who “were not like us. ”

“You must learn to draw every man before you can really draw any man.”

He had a love for the arts that was all encompassing. He would often take special evening field trips to the opera house for plays, and give away tickets as prizes in his classroom. I remember winning tickets to “Madame Butterfly” and I vaguely remember going and not paying any attention, but him telling us to look for all of the art and design that was put into the stagecraft and lighting. I appreciate that much more now, but back then I was probably bored to tears!

That was the last year he had taught Jr. High art. He was retiring. I remember the sadness of his art room being deconstructed. The paper machete statues being given away to prized and past students. I remember him giving a small goodbye speech to our class and he got choked up. He wished me luck and repeated to me… “Always keep a sharp pencil.” — Which I still thought was a little weird at the time.

In High School my art classes were much different. I was met by the evil intrepid Ms. Wolfe of Palm Springs high school who once said that cartoons were not “REAL ART”- She also told my parents I had “cartoon tunnel vision” -  Looking back now I think it was such a stark contrast between the magic and wonder and the “anything is possible” feeling of Mr. Crump’s art class and the rigid asshole vibe of Ms. Wolfe’s classroom. I left art classes for print shop and graphic design and I was better for it! But I never forgot that wonderful “I’m in a comic strip!” feeling of Mr. Crump’s class. I never forgot the “always keep your tools handy” type thing either… to which I blame Mr. Crump for my “fanny pack” stage where I had the bike bag filled with art supplies my 8th grade year. What a dork I was!!!

Years later, I think around 1999 or 2000, when I was working on the Gravity daily comic strip and my work had been in the papers and a few newspaper articles were written about me where I happen to mention him as a teacher who inspired me, I wanted to get in touch and send him a copy of my work and the newspaper clipping. Mr. Crump was a very private man in his retirement and not easy to locate. As far as I knew, he didn’t have any family out west either, but somehow I stumbled across his mailing address and wrote him a thank you letter along with samples of my work and clipping from the article. I wasn’t even sure if he’d remember me! I left my phone number and contact info.

A couple weeks later my phone rang… it was Mr. Crump! He sounded exactly the same and told me how wonderful it was to hear from me and he praised my cartooning work up and down. I told him I wasn’t sure if he’d remember me, and he said of course! He even remembered the odd conversation in the hallway. He told me that when you teach art for 32 years, it’s pretty easy to see the kids who have “the spark” and a lot of times the spark will go out if someone doesn’t push them in the right direction. Mr. Crump said that your pencil is just an extension of your mind… always keep it sharp. Another profound thing he told me which really matches up to where I am mentally today was the idea that you create anything in your mind FIRST. You’ve already drawn it in your mind before the pencil touches the paper.

It’s a little ironic now that I don’t even draw with a pencil anymore, I draw with light! (Cintiq!) But I do keep my mind very sharp.

I hadn’t really thought about Mr. Crump until today. I decided to google his name and look up his artwork… only to find out he passed away in 2005. What a wonderful life he had, and he dedicated the last chapter of his life to retelling popular children’s stories for African-American audiences. Mr. Crump had more than 40 titles.

It might sound amazingly nerdy… but thinking back on it now,  Mr. Crump was kinda like my Obi-Wan Kenobi. I’m imagining him as a force ghost appearing in my office to tell me the student has become the master. Also another part of me wishes there were more art classrooms like he had.

So long Mr. Crump, and THANK YOU!

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