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Remembering Portland Cartoonist John Callahan

Today we’re remembering the Portland cartoonist John Callahan. He died Saturday. 

Callahan was a familiar figure around Portland, moving down sidewalks in his motorized wheelchair, usually sporting bright orange hair. 

John Callahan on Oregon Art Beat

His story was widely known — a drunken car accident at age 21 left him a paraplegic. Sometime after that, he stopped drinking.  

His cartoons were syndicated in publications around the country. He was also a singer-songwriter and animator.

Callahan’s cartoons made lots of people mad — he didn’t shy away from making fun of feminists, Catholics, or disabled people like him.

“Y’know, over the years I’ve gotten hundreds of angry letters from all around the world. And I only indulged myself once time to answer one of them, a nurse from Chicago. And she said how could dare draw cartoons about handicapped people, cause she said my brother’s disabled, and you’d never know the agony he goes through. But I called Chicago, and I found a way of tracking her down — some cab company was able to get the address, and I got her phone number where she worked and called her up at her place of work, and explained very gently that I was the cartoonist Callahan, that I had drawn this cartoon… was responding to her letter…explained that I was indeed disabled myself…it was a very sweet moment. I was nice, very gentle with her.”

Today marks the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Richard Pimentel is an Oregon activist who worked for the passage of the ADA.  On OPB’s Think Out Loud today, Pimentel remembered John Callahan.

Richard Pimentel: “Callahan’s humor was — I would describe it as fierce, very controversial outside the disability community because people said ‘Oh my god he’s making fun of this stuff’, but within the community there were people who were afraid of it because they thought it would turn the general public against people with disabilities because it was so fierce and so irreverent. I personally loved his humor; the first time I saw one of his cartoons I thought, ‘I gotta meet this man!’”

Oregon Art Beat — 2004