Tim Kemp had beautiful hands — an artist’s hands — all long graceful fingers and smooth planes. They were beautiful to see and beautiful to watch.
His hands were rarely at rest, always doodling little characters or writing funny sayings.
Tim once said he got his start drawing in the second grade, scrawling on the bathroom walls of his elementary school in Mt. Washington, a neighborhood on the east side of Cincinnati.
Then his doodles moved from bathroom tiles to sketchbooks and from sketchbooks to newsprint. His friends now mention him in the same breath as some of the day’s best-known editorial cartoonists like Mike Peters of The Dayton Daily News, John Oliphant of The Washington Post and Jim Borgman at The Cincinnati Enquirer.
“If you look at Tim’s work and compare it to other cartoonists at the time, they had nothing on Tim,” said Ken Peterson, who collaborated with Tim on editorial cartoons in the late 1970s. “Tim was every bit as good as the best cartoonist in the country.”
But the name “Tim Kemp” can only be found in a handful of publications.
That’s how it was with Tim, Ken said — “relative anonymity but an unbelievable talent.”
It was his pseudonym, Dirk DeJong, that was much better known.
It’s that pseudonym which Tim signed on the pages of artwork that sat tucked away in Doug Imbrogno’s Cincinnati home for over 25 years.
An old friend of Tim’s, Doug was cleaning out a closet in early 2017 when he came across a large bag, bulging with stacks of papers, smudged with pencil and crinkled with dried ink.
“It just kind of confronted me,” Doug said.
In that bag were hundreds of Tim’s cartoons and illustrations, pieces of Tim in the work of his hands — those beautiful hands — preserved in pages that, though hidden away for decades, were bound to see the sun.
“He sat looking down at his hands — his fine strong unscarred hands.”
– Edna Ferber, “So Big”
Ken Peterson met Tim when they were both attending Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. As a recent conservative-turned-self-proclaimed-hippie, Ken had joined the university newspaper, hoping to write political columns, but, like all cub reporters, he had to start out by writing hard news.
In those days, he would stay up late, and, several nights a week, he noticed that one of his neighbors in the Arrowhead Apartment complex would come in past midnight dressed in a Miami University Police Department uniform.
Wanting to play the reporter, Peterson introduced himself to the stranger across the hall, hoping the young man would be a source for story tips (“Imagine the leads this guy could give me!”). Though Tim never fed Peterson any leads, they quickly became friends.
So when Peterson learned that Tim was an artist, he had an idea: He could formulate his critiques of the conservative campus culture into editorial cartoons. He’d provide the ideas and Tim the hands, which would kick into gear — sketching, drawing, circling, writing — anytime they landed on a great new concept. The brainstorming sessions would usually happen late at night at the student center, as Tim and Ken drank coffee and ate toasted rolls.
But Tim was hesitant to print the cartoons in the student newspaper, The Miami Student. Openly criticizing the university in print could jeopardize his job with Campus Security. Rather than risk his job, Tim decided to assume a pseudonym — Dirk DeJong.
“He just had a real wacky sense of humor. It could have been a porn star name,” said Sue MacDonald, editor-in-chief of The Student at the time, of the moniker’s origin. “I wouldn’t rule that out.”
His chosen name did not, in fact, have pornographic roots. The character of Dirk DeJong appears in “So Big,” a 1925 novel by American author Edna Ferber.
The novel, which earned Ferber a Pulitzer, follows the life of Selina Peake DeJong, a school teacher in a Dutch district southwest of Chicago known as High Prairie. Though never an artist herself, Selina vehemently encourages others to pursue their artistic passions. She marries a farmer and they have a child, Dirk. They nickname the boy “So Big,” (as in, “How big is baby?” “Sooo big!”).
“Until he was almost ten the name stuck to him,” the novel begins. “He had literally to fight his way free of it.”
The book also inspired two cinematic versions — one in 1932 and another in 1953 — but it’s unclear which iteration of “So Big” prompted Tim to take Dirk as his nom de plume.
The name “Dirk” appeared on the editorial pages of The Miami Student for the first time on January 9, 1976. From the composition of the drawing to the handwriting in the caption, it’s clear the cartoon is Tim’s handiwork, but two other names are credited on the piece. “Dirk, Ken & Abe” are all signed in Tim’s cartoonish cursive.
Over the next few months of 1976, most of the cartoons are signed “Ken Peterson/Dirk DeJong.” Tim and Ken had similar views on the university’s overwhelming population of “yuppie” students. After the spring semester of ‘76, Ken disliked Miami’s conservative culture so much that he decided to leave and finish his degree at Northwestern University in Evanston, IL.
On the side of his cartoon in the May 21 issue, Tim wrote a farewell message to his cartooning colleague: “Goodbye Ken…Miami’s loss is Northwestern’s gain!!!”
When the paper’s staff returned in the fall, Tim signed his cartoons with “Dirk DeJong for The Miami Student.”
Every week, the night before the paper would go to print, then-editor-in-chief Sue would stop by the Security Office where Tim worked late-night shifts and tell him what stories would be in the next day’s paper. He would doodle as she described the latest in student government, Oxford crime or dorm policies.
The next night, as the staff laid out the print edition at the Oxford Press, Tim would arrive to place his cartoon, a pen still in hand to make any final adjustments.
One of his first cartoons for the ‘76-‘77 academic year shows two starry-eyed freshman girls carrying stacks of books and sporting trendy painter’s pants and wedge sandals. Bubbles and stars emanate from their blissful smiles, and a pennant that reads “Uptown is neat!” flutters behind them.
Sitting against a tree, watching the young women walk by, is a broad-shouldered upperclassman with a jaunty mustache and sunglasses, his arms confidently resting behind his head to increase the visibility of his biceps.
“It’s satisfying to know there are still some things in this world that never change. One of them is freshmen,” says the young man.
Next to him is another young man, hunched slightly over a book and wearing a button-down shirt that hangs on his thin frame. He has narrow shoulders, a downward-turning mustache and a wry expression.
“The other is Miami,” he says in response.
That shy young man, with a mustache and slim build, looks like Tim.
Tim didn’t usually get political, but his cartoons were often critical of the university. Many of Tim’s jokes at the time centered around “Mother Miami,” the nickname students gave the school and its in loco parentis role with students.
“Tim could be snarky as heck,” said Doug Imbrogno, who was Features Editor at The Student during the ‘78-‘79 school year. “But it was a snark that painted a portrait and stood back and let it speak for itself.”
One cartoon, from ‘78, shows a perfectly coiffed Miami couple. The girl sports hair with Farah Fawcett volume, a preppy cowl neck sweater and — the finishing detail — a sorority pin. The guy is clad in a blazer and a Miami t-shirt, tucked into cuffed jeans. They both wear boat shoes and smug smiles. The mustachioed young man holds a cup in one hand and wraps his other arm around the girl’s shoulder. His hand is about the size of her face. The caption above the couple reads, “Barbie and Ken.”
Some of Tim’s commentary on Miami’s homogeny depicted a Miami mold.
And Tim didn’t fit that mold. He never had.
“There’s something about a man who has fought for it — I don’t know what it is — a look in his eye — the feel of his hand. He needn’t have been successful — though he probably would be.”
– Edna Ferber, “So Big”
Tim’s life before Miami — his aspirations and obstacles, his false starts and changes of direction — can be pieced together from things he told his friends, especially Doug Imbrogno, who wrote a long, revealing story about Tim for the Student in 1978.
Though he spent his early childhood years in southwest Ohio, Tim spent much of his young life in Kansas. At Shawnee Mission North High School, near Kansas City, Tim took a few journalism classes and worked for the school paper, The Shawnee Mission. He wrote features and satire pieces. The paper didn’t print cartoons, but he dabbled with a few illustrations.
In early August 1964, Tim enrolled at the University of Kansas. He decided to major in education, solely because he hoped to get a job right out of college. He also hoped finding a job in the classroom could be his free pass out of combat. After all, the same month that Tim started college, North Vietnamese forces opened fire on two U.S. destroyers stationed in the Gulf of Tonkin. Less than a week later, President Lyndon B. Johnson pushed for Congress to pass the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. That document gave the president the power to take whatever measures he deemed necessary to retaliate.
It became a joke, Tim once said, that if he or any of his male classmates flunked out, their next stop was a rice paddy in Vietnam.
Tim stayed out of the spotlight in college, almost as if his fear of being drafted made him hesitant to call any attention to himself. He didn’t write for the newspaper. He didn’t draw cartoons. He shied away from protests and marches.
After graduation, he found a job as an art teacher in his old school district, Shawnee Mission. The school where Tim was assigned — Trailridge Junior High — was widely known as the school for “problem” students, the place where ninth-grade flunkies with files thick with detention slips and demerits were sent for a fresh start. The building itself, only a year old, was even built like a correctional facility. Half of it was underground, and most classrooms were windowless.
On Tim’s second day of teaching, a student broke the axles of a school bus by putting a rock between its wheels. One of his more troublesome students ended up spending a stint at the state prison. But no matter how much his students misbehaved, Tim knew teaching was better than the alternative.
At the end of his first year of teaching, Tim’s number was up — he was ordered to report for a physical with the United States Army. He wasn’t too worried, though. Tim was deaf in one ear. It was a surefire way out, he thought. And though two of his friends were turned away — one for a bad knee and the other for a nervous stomach — Tim passed the physical without question.
He immediately penned a strongly worded letter to the Pentagon appealing his call to duty, and his request was promptly rejected.
But Tim was unwilling to accept a ticket to the Mekong Delta as his fate so, surreptitiously, he scheduled an ear operation in October — the same month he was supposed to report for active duty. Because of the procedure, Tim got a medical deferment for a year. The Army never contacted him again.
It was during Tim’s second year of teaching art at Trailridge that he started cartooning. Back then, he told himself it was just a hobby.
After seven years of teaching ninth grade art, Tim had grown bored, and he decided to pursue something that felt like the exact opposite of what he was already doing. Tim turned to the sciences and enrolled in a couple microbiology courses at the local community college.
Tim kept teaching at Trailridge, toting his microbiology textbooks with him to the teachers’ lounge. The other teachers would give him funny looks, but he was the art teacher, after all. He had license to be extra quirky.
Tim enjoyed microbiology so much that he signed up for organic chemistry. Ten credit hours later, Tim quit his job at Trail Ridge and set his sights on a microbiology degree.
At the time, Tim had a cousin at Miami, so he visited and arranged a meeting with the chair of the university’s microbiology department.
With only five hours of microbiology and five hours of chemistry on his transcript, Tim was accepted into Miami’s program — as a graduate student. His folks back in Kansas hardly believed him, but, nevertheless, that fall of ‘75, Tim moved to Oxford and started his first graduate seminar.
On the first day of class, the students were asked to introduce themselves. Several were pursuing doctoral degrees and had already earned their master’s from schools like Purdue or the University of Michigan. As the introductions came around to Tim, his palms started to sweat. He couldn’t possibly tell them he was an art major from Kansas. So he faked it — as best he could.
But as the weeks went on, the more Tim dove into his coursework, the more he felt in over his head. It took him three days to read just the first chapter of his pathogenic microbiology textbook. For the course’s lab, Tim was supposed to infect a mouse with tuberculosis. Not only was he unsuccessful, but a bite from the rodent sent him to the Health Center for a tetanus shot.
He had to come clean, he decided. Tim finally confided in a professor that he did not, in fact, have a background in microbiology and then withdrew from the program.
Spooked from his brief stint in the sciences, Tim returned to art education and, around the same time, was recruited to draw cartoons for the Student.
“You can’t hide splendor, Dirk.”
– Dallas O’Mara, “So Big” (film, 1953)
When Tim finally felt confident he wouldn’t be fired from his job at the Security Office, he decided to reveal his identity to the readers of The Miami Student. Doug, the Features Editor, felt the reveal deserved top billing in the paper, in the form of a profile written by Doug himself.
“It’s time to blow his cover,” the story began.
Doug’s story unveiling the true identity of Dirk DeJong was printed in the January 28, 1978 issue of the paper. At over 2,600 words, it was given its own two-page spread and was accompanied by portrait photos of Tim that would one day be viewed by his friends as iconic.
It was the kind of story that Doug and the rest of the TMS staff — and perhaps Tim as well — thought that, years later, people would look back on to uncover the origin story of Tim Kemp, nationally renowned artist and cartoonist.
“Tim, bearded and bespectacled, has been around,” Doug wrote, “in possibly more ways than one. He declines to give his age except in enigmatic references.”
The story hints at Tim’s age (“Tim remembers 10-inch television screens…”), but never reveals the actual number. TMS readers weren’t the only ones who had to guess at his age, either.
On former Student editor Sue MacDonald’s 21st birthday, Marilyn Shapiro, another TMS staffer and close friend of Tim’s, threw Sue a surprise party. They’d had a few beers and were sitting around talking when
Tim made a comment about being much older than Sue.
Tim was a graduate student, so she knew he had a few years on her, but Sue wasn’t sure of his exact age.
As they sipped their beers, Marilyn and Sue started taking guesses.
“Twenty-five,” one of them said.
Tim jammed his thumb upward.
Higher, the thumb said.
He was 31, he told them.
They gawked in disbelief.
Despite his gregarious personality, Sue said, Tim didn’t have many friends, even at the Student. She guessed his age had a lot to do with it.
“He was very boyish,” said Doug. “But at the same time he had this world-weariness about him that was quite sweet, actually.”
Tim preferred to be wholly himself — his wacky, witty, playful self — but to do that, he kept his social circle tight. Most of the people Tim did become close to were members of the newspaper’s staff.
“Back then, we were kind of the oddball students,” Sue remembered. “Other people would be dressed up for class and we would be walking around in jeans and flannel shirts and fringe tops.”
It was affirming and energizing for Tim to be surrounded by creative people who appreciated his artistic ability, his creativity and his singular brand of humor. Tim was quick-witted, sometimes dark, and told jokes with the kind of timing that confounded his friends. How did he think of them so quickly? And how did he think of making a joke out of that?
“He had a great laugh,” Sue remembered. “It was this great, giggly laugh that came from the bottom of his soul. It was a real spontaneous kind of sense of humor.”
Though Tim was closest to his friends at the newspaper, even with them he didn’t always feel at ease. During that first semester when Tim started to draw cartoons — the spring of ‘76 — he realized that his friend Ken Peterson, the Ken who collaborated with Tim on his cartoons, was more than just a friend to him.
Sue remembers when Tim finally came out to her. They were sitting in the living room of her apartment on South Main Street. Sue was good friends with Ken, too, so she knew that Ken wasn’t gay.
But Tim couldn’t help how he felt. When Ken left for Northwestern, it made it easier, in some ways, for Tim to cope.
“It was hard for him to admit he was gay,” Sue said. “Back then, coming out was not sometimes the accepted thing to do, and because he was older, I think he felt more out of place.”
As Tim started to come out to more people at Miami, he made other friends through the university’s gay community. Miami’s gay population was still very “underground,” Sue said, but it had its customs.
On weekends, instead of heading to Uptown Oxford to hit the bars, most gay students would go to Cincinnati. Tim would even see professors there sometimes.
“You won’t believe who’s gay!” Tim would say to Sue before spilling to her which closeted student or faculty member he had run into at the bar that weekend.
As Tim came to accept his sexuality, he also started getting honest with himself about his art. This whole cartooning thing? Turns out it wasn’t just a hobby, he realized.
“This is what I want to do,” Tim is quoted saying in Doug’s TMS feature. “I want to be an illustrator or cartoonist.”
“Any piece of furniture, I don’t care how beautiful it is, has got to be lived with, and kicked about, and rubbed down, and mistreated, and repolished, and knocked around and dusted and sat on or slept in or eaten off of before it develops its real character.”
– Edna Ferber, “So Big”
In the tenth chapter of “So Big,” in a night haunted by flashes of heat lightning and shuddering breaths, Selina loses her husband to pneumonia. Tasked with maintaining the family farm and raising their son alone, she clings to a dream for Dirk. She wants him to be an artist.
For a time, he complies. Dirk goes to college and starts working as an architect, but soon he succumbs to the allure of wealth. He decides to work as a stockbroker instead.
Unlike his pseudonymic counterpart, Tim had his heart set on the artist’s life. He was ambitious, regularly sending his best crop of cartoons to The New Yorker, but he didn’t anticipate much, if any, financial success.
“I mean, you know, years of just kind of turning it out and being rejected has convinced me that from now on I’m heading for the top, my star will be up there,” Tim had quipped in his ‘78 profile. “I’ll never go hungry again!”
While Tim’s resolve to draw professionally was the antithesis of Dirk’s decision to turn away from art, Tim shared something notable with the fictional character — deeply disappointing his family.
On one of Dirk’s visits home, his mother, who was growing feeble with age and exhaustion, confronts him about his decision to abandon architecture. Is he ever going to return to it?
No, he responds tersely, a rejection Ferber brutally describes as a “clean amputation.”
“She gave an actual gasp, as though icy water had been thrown full in her face,” Ferber writes of Selina’s reaction. “She looked suddenly old, tired. Her shoulders sagged.”
If he wasn’t to return to architecture, then she had failed as a mother. How could Dirk desert her? How could her son desert beauty? How could he cast off self-expression?
“‘You wait! She’ll turn on you someday,’” Selina scolds him. “‘Someday you’ll want her, and she won’t be there.’”
Tim’s parents, straightlaced Kansas evangelicals from Wichita, wished their son hadn’t engaged in so much self expression.
“His family didn’t accept him,” said Sue. “I think after he came out to his family, they didn’t really talk to him ever again.”
Tim had two brothers and one sister, but he rarely talked about his family. It hurt too much, Sue said.
Even after Sue graduated from Miami, she and Tim remained close. She remembers getting calls from him at her desk when she started working as a reporter for The Cincinnati Enquirer.
“Hello,” Tim would say in a vaguely European accent. “I would like to report a murder.”
“A couple times I was sucked into it until he started laughing,” Sue said. “And I’d say, ‘Omigod, Tim, it’s you again.’”
Tim never finished his graduate degree at Miami and eventually left his job at the Security Office. In 1984, he moved to an apartment in Cincinnati and started looking for freelance work. Just like his place in Oxford, Tim filled his city apartment with stacks and stacks of New Yorker issues.
“You know how some people say they only buy Playboy for the articles?” Sue said. “Tim really did subscribe to The New Yorker only for the cartoons.”
The most memorable feature of Tim’s apartment, though, was a colorful painting that hung on his living room wall. The painting showed four older women with white-blue hair and dreary housedresses. They all had bulbous breasts forming one bulging, cushioned shelf on each of their chests. The bottom of the painting said, “Guess who’s hiding the cantaloupe?”
It made Sue laugh every time she visited.
Though Tim kept working at his cartoons, he didn’t achieve anything more than sporadic success. Hoping to help Tim get his start, Sue arranged a meeting between him and her colleague at the Enquirer, Jim Borgman, who would win a Pulitzer for his editorial cartooning in 1991.
Jim had a lot of great things to say about Tim’s work, Sue remembers. Tim showed more than promise. He already had all the talent and skills he needed. He just needed the right opportunity, and that opportunity was probably right around the corner, Jim said.
But it was around that same time when Tim received a life-threatening diagnosis.
In June 1981, the first known cases of AIDS — a virus that attacks the immune system — were reported in the United States. In 1984, about a year before Tim’s diagnosis, the number of cases had climbed to 7,699.
Of those people, 3,665 had died. Most of the identified cases were in gay men.
Doctors found themselves scrambling to treat a disease that, at first, didn’t even have a name. Some media referred to AIDS as “the gay disease.” Health care providers would diagnose patients with “GRID,” “Gay-Related Immune Deficiency.”
Religious protesters took to the streets calling for an end to homosexuality. Gay rights activists took to the same streets imploring research, not hysteria.
For the gay community, those years were fraught with confusion, misinformation, heartache and prejudice. So, when Tim was told he had AIDS, it was a death sentence.
Sue remembers when Tim showed her the scabby lesions that had started to form all over his body — the marks of Kaposi’s sarcoma, a form of cancer that occurs on the skin of someone with AIDS. The wounds marked Tim as one of the decade’s “untouchables.”
She tried not to cry, for his sake. But she couldn’t help herself.
For awhile, even after the diagnosis, Tim continued to draw. When Sue got married, he gave her a drawing of Northside, the Cincinnati neighborhood where they both lived.
It was when Tim started to lose his eyesight that Sue knew he didn’t have much time left.
“Tim was such a visual person,” she said. “He was such an artist that when he lost his eyesight, he lost his will to live.”
“Dirk took off his coat, his vest, threw them on a chair near the bed…Then, quite suddenly, he flung himself on the fine silk-covered bed, face down, and lay there, his head in his arms, very still.”
-Edna Ferber, “So Big”
On Monday, May 15, 1989, memorial services for Timothy Alan Kemp were held at St. George’s Catholic Church in Cincinnati. He was survived by his parents and three siblings.
Tim’s parents did not attend the funeral. One brother did come, Sue recalled — a brother with whom Tim hadn’t spoken in a decade.
Now going on thirty years since Tim’s death, whenever Sue hears a funny joke, her first thought is still, “I have to tell Tim.”
“I still miss him,” Sue said. “You never get over those kinds of friendships.”
Before he died, Tim gave all of his artwork to his former Student colleague, Doug Imbrogno. For years, the stacks of sketches, cartoons and illustrations had accumulated dust in Doug’s closet even as Tim’s memory still gnawed at Doug’s mind.
He’d thought about publishing it as a book or seeing if the university wanted to display some of it in an exhibit. But when Doug found Tim’s drawings that day in January 2017, shoved away in the back of a closet, he was reminded how many years it had been.
“It was well past time to honor his work,” he said.
Within the month, Doug started a Facebook page where, every few days, he shares another cartoon or illustration, accompanied by a short explanation or memory. So far, he’s been able to get in touch with other TMS alums about the page. Even a couple artists from other countries have reached out to comment on the work, Doug said.
The regret over having not done something with Tim’s work earlier is softened some, Doug said, by his ability now to reach a wider audience online.
The page has become a way for Tim’s friends to reconnect and remember — both the man and the art.
Tim’s body of work is almost entirely populated by cartoons, illustrations or stylized cityscapes, but his last piece of art was a painting. It appeared on the cover of the program for his funeral — a simple beach scene with an empty chair facing the ocean.
“That painting still haunts me,” said Ken Peterson. “It’s just one of those things. Every time I hear someone has died — boom! It pops in my head.”
The end of Ferber’s “So Big” finds Dirk DeJong alone in his sumptuous apartment, surrounded by unscuffed furniture and fresh, silken clothing. And there in that den of untouched objects, lying face down and still, Dirk starts to feel regret.
Just like his mother warned, he wants art. But he has missed his chance. It’s no longer there for him. He lies there in silence until his melancholic stupor is interrupted by the shrill cry of the telephone and the hollow knock of his butler.
How different from Dirk’s grim apartment is Tim’s oceanfront — a somber but serene solitude, tempered by the comfort that something has been left behind.
To view Tim Kemp’s work, visit www.facebook.com/timkempartwork/
For inquiries about republishing his work, contact Doug Imbrogno at firstname.lastname@example.org