Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Universal Birthday Celebrated in K.C

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Universal Birthday Celebrated in K.C

Article excerpt

IN 1970, TWO men got together to start a tiny syndicate.

Twenty-five years later, 700 people got together to celebrate the silver anniversary of what is now the largest independent newspaper syndicate in the world.

The Feb. 10-12 gathering in Kansas City culminated in a banquet featuring remarks by Universal Press Syndicate co-founder John McMeel.

Echoing the famous 1939 words of dying baseball great Lou Gehrig, McMeel told the audience that he felt like "the luckiest man on the face of the earth."

The syndicate president noted, for instance, that he was fortunate to have people who helped Universal continue to grow after the untimely 1980 death of his fellow co-founder, Jim Andrews, at the age of 44.

"I lost the greatest partner the world could ever bring"' said McMeel, "but I gained a great partner at the same time - Kathy Andrews."

Kathy, who is Jim's widow and Universal's vice president, was one of several banquet speakers praising the late Andrews as a person, editor and discoverer of features.

Speakers also praised Universal's current executives, staffers and creators.

"Each and everyone of you out there made this possible," said Susan McMeel, who, along with Kathy Andrews, helped their respective husbands start Universal.

The early days were difficult, as Universal struggled to compete with several large syndicates - including King Features Syndicate, United Feature Syndicate and what is now Tribune Media Services - which had already been in business for decades.

Back then, joked Universal's vice president for finance, Elena Fallon, "paying bills on time was not corporate policy!"

But Universal grew, first slowly, and then rapidly, with the help of innovative features such as "Doonesbury" by Garry Trudeau.

Trudeau - whose comic started in October 1970, eight months after the syndicate's founding - said many older newspaper publishers were not ready for his brand of topical humor.

"The strip kept getting canceled as fast as John could sell it," recalled Trudeau, who said McMeel tried to console him by noting that these publishers wouldn't be around forever.

"He was right," the cartoonist told the audience, with a smile. "In the years that followed, a happy pattern emerged. Publishers who vowed that `Doonesbury' would appear in their newspapers over their dead bodies got their wish! Our client list floated upward on the tears of widows and children."

Turning more serious, Trudeau thanked the McMeels and the Andrews, and commented on the longevity of many Universal executives and staffers.

"This company creates loyalty the old-fashioned way - it earns it," Trudeau said.

Several other longtime Universal executives also spoke, including vice president Thomas Thornton, vice president/editorial director Lee Salem, vice president/creative George Diggs and assistant vice president/managing editor Alan McDermott.

Additional banquet speakers included priest-turned-mystery writer William Kienzle, one of the first authors published by Universal's Andrews and McMeel company; and Jan Girando, creative director of Oz, A&M's gift and stationery division.

Numerous bestselling books and products from A&M and Oz have helped fuel Universal's growth.

Two bestselling A&M authors, "Calvin and Hobbes" cartoonist Bill Watterson and now-retired "Far Side" cartoonist Gary Larson, did not attend the silver anniversary weekend. …

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