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A cartoonist's torment: Drawings of a lost son

Published November 24, 2005 1:23 am

A father watches, searches, sketches, crumbles as Jimmy descends darkly then disappears
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2005, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

PRESCOTT, Ariz. - The artist would perch himself on a bench in the town square, sketchbook and pencil in hand.

In between doodles of his beloved wife and ''Miss Kitty,'' the pet cat, he'd fill page after page with the other subjects that consumed him: The panhandlers who sat under elm trees hungering for pocket change as lovers strolled to dinner and children played on the grass.

Happiness and despair competed for space in the plaza and in the artist's sketchbook and heart.

Sometimes, the vagrants he studied would notice the pencil and book and hesitantly approach. He'd share his drawing. They'd talk. Sooner or later, the artist would brave the question:

Would you happen to know my son?

He might pull out another sketch, crinkled and watermarked after being lugged around in his pickup truck. It showed a man's face, masked by a thick beard and shoulder-length, shaggy hair. Shadows wreathed the eyes, which stared, hardened and defeated, at nothing.

Under the image, in block letters, was one word: ''JIMMY.''

The artist went by the same name. Jim Willoughby was known around town. He was a successful cartoonist whose work appeared twice weekly in The Daily Courier newspaper, usually lampooning the mayor or the Town Council's latest pet project. Years before, he'd worked at Hanna-Barbera and Walt Disney, helping give life to Scooby Doo, Yogi Bear, Darkwing Duck.

His art had been dedicated to making folks smile. Few knew that his skill had also become an outlet for his grief.

They never saw all the other drawings, tucked into sketchbooks and buried inside boxes at home - of the child whose loss tormented him, of the panhandler he called son. They never knew that the man who made them laugh was crying inside.

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''My son, my son. What happened? You let a lot of people down but mainly yourself.'' - Caption on a pencil and ink sketch of Jimmy, eyes downcast, walking alone on the street.

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Long before the sadness, there was the joy of being a father. That, too, Jim Willoughby poured into his art, through the cards he drew by the dozens for his little boys, Jimmy and David. These cards arrived at his ex-wife's house in between his scheduled visitations, illustrated with some creature or toy or spectacle.

For Jimmy's 6th birthday, a lion and cheetah chitchatting. When Jimmy was sick, a firetruck and a get-well-soon message. The image: A boy climbing a cliff as another boy stood watching: ''Someday maybe we'll all get to climb a real high mountain like this. Until then, we'll practice on the little ones.''

He signed them, ''Love, Daddy.''

Though divorced when his sons were toddlers, Willoughby wasn't satisfied being a part-time dad. He was only 9 when his own father died after a bout with tuberculosis. Two months later, his mother fell ill and was admitted to a TB sanitarium. Willoughby, his brother and sister were sent to live for six years in a children's home; he never wanted his own boys to experience that loneliness.

Jimmy was 11, David 9, when Willoughby won full custody. He quit his job as an analyst at an aerospace technology firm to stay home, freelance cartoons and raise his boys.

He wasn't terribly strict, but Willoughby taught his sons about respect and manners, and he had high expectations for them both. When David got his black belt in karate, Willoughby persuaded his shy son to be interviewed for a newspaper story. When David later began working in construction, Willoughby urged him to pursue a contractor's license.

Jimmy, ruggedly handsome with dark hair and a movie-star smile, excelled as a catcher on his high school and college baseball teams, eventually landing a spot with a minor league club. When Jimmy was cut from the team, Willoughby confronted the coach, demanding to know why. Still, Jimmy bounced back, finding work with Motel 6 and rising to regional vice president in the Northwest.

What, exactly, went wrong and why? Over the years, as the elder Willoughby remarried and settled in Prescott, Ariz., he would ponder these questions again and again.

''It wouldn't be for me to judge what kind of father I was,'' he said in a journal entry. ''Conscientious, loving, doting, hopeful - these things I was but the end product[s] speak for themselves. My efforts appear to have been in vain . . . ''

Above one sketch, he wrote of dreaming about Jimmy, ''begging . . . on a street corner. Disturbing.''

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''From Catcher to Panhandler.'' - Ink sketch of Jimmy, his left hand extended in a silent appeal, his right holding a container full of coins.

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The Willoughby boys liked their booze, but when David visited his brother the ''V.P.,'' he says he discovered Jimmy's taste for cocaine, as well. Jimmy didn't bother hiding the alcohol and drugs from his sibling, although David suspects he did from their father. Then Jimmy lost his job and joined Jim Willoughby and wife Sue in Prescott.

The city, in the cool pine mountains north of Phoenix, calls itself ''Everybody's Hometown,'' but the strip around the courthouse plaza goes by another moniker: ''Whiskey Row.'' Old-time saloons like The Palace and Jersey Lilly sit next to modernized pubs offering karaoke and shots.

Jimmy, then 43 years old, talked about using his savings to open a pizza place, but the money ran out. He rented a house, but fell behind in rent and was evicted. He moved in with a friend, but spent his days on Whiskey Row.

The arrests came next, for driving under the influence. Then one day, while drunk, he fell on the pavement and suffered a head injury, leaving him hospitalized for months and partially brain damaged.

His father and Sue beseeched him to get help but knew they couldn't force him to straighten up. ''You can't support a person who doesn't want to help themselves,'' Sue would say. David was out of the picture, living in California and, he says, dealing with his own drinking problem.

So in 1998, when Jimmy got out of the hospital, he found himself on the streets. And he began showing up in his father's sketchbooks and journals.

There were the courtroom scenes of a ponytailed man labeled ''DUI Defendant'' or a bearded figure in arm shackles.

The hospital sketches of a grim-faced patient in a wheelchair. ''Eyes are heavy-lidded, hair is a mess - badly chopped. Mouth, a thin line, protrudes strangely. Depressing.''

The birthday cards, so different from those sent to the boy who liked lions. ''Jimmy's 45th Birthday. He was doing real well. But then he made bad choices in friends and lifestyle and he is where he is because of it. Happy Birthday Jimmy.''

The dark shadow of self-doubt and depression haunted Willoughby. ''I feel I am coming apart sometimes. Today is one of those times,'' he wrote. ''I vacillate between thoughts of trying to rehabilitate him and realizing I can't. . . . I can't shake the grief over what has come of Jimmy.''

On the outside, Willoughby remained the cartoonist with a dashing grin beneath his bushy mustache. One drawing depicted a cowhand facing a chuckwagon cook with his pants seat blown apart. ''My compliments on the beans,'' went the joke.

He doted on his wife, his ''Sweet Sue,'' and tried to live life based upon a favorite credo: ''Make good memories.''

The visits to the courthouse plaza came in between all that, on his way to and from the office, before lunch or after errands. Most co-workers never knew about these searches for his son; he rarely spoke of Jimmy - except with Sue.

At the dinner table, he'd asked her: "Do you think he's still alive?"

Yes, Sue said, attempting to ease his mind.

Five days before Christmas 2000, he found out. The Willoughbys were headed to the auto shop when they spotted him: A bearded vagabond sitting at a bench in the plaza. Willoughby dropped Sue and headed back. Stepping out of the car, he heard, ''Dad!''

Jimmy had a grocery sack stuffed with clothing on the ground next to him. He looked ragged, beaten down. Willoughby sat next to his son and they talked for a few moments, but the father was overcome with sadness, anger. He excused himself and left. This moment, too, he recorded in his journal along with a sketch of Jimmy on the bench.

''Next day,'' Willoughby wrote, ''I passed by and he was standing near the same picnic bench, looking off in the general direction of The Palace. Heartbreaking.''

Jimmy disappeared after that, although his father kept stopping by the plaza in hopes of finding him.

Do you think he's still alive? Willoughby asked again of his wife.

No, she replied.

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''He loved Christmas.'' - Pencil drawing of Jimmy's face, with shaggy hair and beard, sketched two years after the 2000 meeting at the plaza.

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The phone call came earlier this year, from a crisis center up in Seattle. The counselor said a man had been seeking treatment at the facility for several years and finally revealed he had family in Arizona.

Jimmy Willoughby wanted to speak with his dad.

''My husband would've cut off his left arm just to know that Jimmy was alive,'' Sue Willoughby told the counselor.

She said Jimmy's father had died.

It happened only a few months before the call. The 76-year-old artist, suffering from emphysema, was working on a cartoon when he went to the kitchen for coffee and collapsed.

Afterward, Sue was going through her husband's belongings when she found the old sketchbooks and his many drawings of Jimmy and other homeless men and women. A former museum director, Sue had just received a newsletter about a local exhibit in the works featuring the art of the homeless, or drawings depicting them.

She donated Willoughby's sketches, along with an essay explaining how her husband spent the last years of his life ''tormented and agonizing over the loss of his son.''

''Every day he wondered if Jimmy was still alive, and if so, where was he? Why didn't he call home?'' she wrote.

She concluded the essay with a message to anyone living on the streets: ''Please pick up the phone once in a while and dial home to let someone know you are alive."

City councilmen, acquaintances, Willoughby's colleagues at The Daily Courier - those who saw the exhibit were taken aback by the dark side of the spirited man they thought they knew.

''He was two persons in one body,'' says Ben Hansen, Willoughby's editor and friend. ''He was this wonderful, funny, talented, incredible person - and then he was so deeply sad inside.''

Jimmy has since been in contact with his brother, David. The last David heard, he was still in Washington state and trying to find a way off the streets.

As for his father's sketches, Jimmy knows nothing about them. Sue says she might one day send him copies. Maybe then he'd understand that he never was alone, that all his father really wanted was for his lost son to find his way home.

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EDITOR'S NOTE - This story is based on interviews with Jim Willoughby's colleagues, his son, David, and his wife, Sue, who provided access to her husband's sketchbooks and journals. Attempts to contact Jimmy were unsuccessful; he did not respond to messages left with his brother or the crisis center in Seattle. Citing confidentiality restrictions, crisis center counselors would not provide information on him, including his whereabouts.

Matt York/The Associated Press

Sue Willoughby embraces one of her late husband's sketchbooks at her home in Prescott, Ariz., in July.