September 25, 2023

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Paul Coker: Master Artist and Great Friend

For the past few months this writer has been trying to put together past experiences, memorable events and the history of his family.  As one longtime, but now dead friend told me, “You always need to have your bag packed as you never know when the Lord is going to call.”

One of the true highlights for me growing up in Lawrence was a special relationship with two classmates…Paul Coker and Fred Six.  We entered Cordley kindergarten together and followed each other in lock-step to Lawrence Junior High at Ninth and Kentucky Streets, then next to Lawrence Memorial High School at 14th and Massachusetts Street, and lastly through Kansas University.

I had tried to reach Paul by phone last week (he was living in New Mexico) as I wanted to pick his mind about our past school days, his remembrances of growing up in Lawrence and any thoughts or observations he might have relative to our long relationship.

I was told he was unable to come to the phone and that it would be better to call some time later.  Sunday morning, Fred Six sent a message telling me Paul had died the previous day.

Paul was indeed a special friend and inasmuch as he had not lived in Lawrence for many years and relatively few current residents knew him, or anything about him, I wanted to let people know about this very special man and just how great he was as a person, friend, and a world class artist.

The three of us met at Cordley Kindergarten and the only difference between us was that Paul was born with his feet pointed inward.  Consequently, he was unable to take part in field kick ball or other athletic activities.

School officials were aware of this and apparently due to his ability to draw and make pictures, a small janitor’s closet in the school’s basement was made available for his to use as a tiny artist’s studio.  He couldn’t play kick ball, but he sure could draw great and funny pictures.

His talent and skill as an artist became evident at every educational station he attended.  Likewise, through the use of therapeutic shoes, his feet were realigned, but he still was somewhat limited by this handicap.

This didn’t stop his painting and drawing.  He created lasting and wonderful impressions and memories throughout his school years.  For example, he created the Lawrence High School mascot, the “Chesty Lion,” and Hallmark’s “Frosty the Snowman.”  His skill as an artist was infectious.  He had a sharp mind, quick to sense what was on the minds or concerns of others.  He was able to deliver a powerful, impactful message as well as generating wide smiles and great laughter.

There’s no question, but that he could have been a world class Pulitzer Prize winner in political cartooning, maybe even a Nobel Prize recipient for his effectiveness in sending a clear and powerful message about badly needed social changes.

But he focused on humor and even in this category, he was able to deliver his humor and political thoughts in a comfortable, and sometimes humorous way, but always with knifelike, sharp precision.

This writer encouraged Paul to enter the political editorial cartoon field, but he declined.  Eventually he agreed to draw several illustrations relative to current situations in Lawrence.

They were powerful — clear in their message, right to the point and didn’t pull any punches.  Any reader could have no hesitation in identifying the individual, activity or program he was targeting.

But, he said, “I wouldn’t want to do this to many of my friends and acquaintances or stepping on their toes.”

He was a star at Hallmark, at MAD Magazine and many other and various national, visual showcases.  He was a winner as an individual, as a trusted friend, a wonderful son who remained in Lawrence to take care of his parents, a keen observer of human nature, a great example of a person overcoming a physical handicap and a world-class individual in every category

Fred Six, the other member of our threesome, put together a tremendously successful and highly respected career as an attorney, State Supreme Court Judge and a highly effective, civic-minded citizen.  Also, a good person.

In a personal letter to me from Paul, written a couple of years ago, Paul wrote:

“Thank you for the nostalgic letter.  It made me think of how unusual our lives have been.  Yours, mine and Fred’s.  Who would have imagined the future of those three little boys from Cordley Grade School?  Miss Simmons would be proud.  It’s been a helluva run for us all.” (Hazel Lee Simmons was our principal.) 

It sure was a helluva run and it is a shame more people did not have the pleasure and opportunity of knowing Paul.  Surely one of Lawrence’s All Time Greats!