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When John Knott and the Dallas News spoke for the whole state.
By Tracy Curts |

This was the first big test of the Dallas News. For three years, beginning in 1921, the News had been battling the Ku Klux Klan in Texas. George Bannerman Dealey, president of the News, railed against the Klan editorially, proclaiming it “a slander on Dallas” and warning of the danger of this “mob spirit.” John Knott added the force of his editorial cartoons to the task.

The News felt the repercussions of the crusade. Sales plummeted as subscriptions were cancelled by the thousands. Eight thousand Klansmen – Dealey called them “Kluxers” – gathered at Fair Park to cancel their subscriptions in one rally, a serious blow to the News’ circulation. Employees of the paper itself left to join the tide of white-hooded men.

Despite Dealey’s considerable influence in the community the Klan swept into Dallas politics until, by 1922, it “owned Elm Street.” These were the merchants and the bankers – the leaders of the city. Dealey knew that his paper’s readership was largely pro-Klan and admitted that the News was “headed straight for bankruptcy if it persists in its opposition to the lawlessness and impossible hatreds that have sprung up everywhere the Klan has cast its fatal shadow.”

By 1924 the Klan was encroaching on the state government. But Dealey wasn’t backing out yet. The News published a syndicated serial expose of the Klan; daily reports of crimes attributed to the Klan took front page priority. The governor’s race of 1924 appeared to be the pivotal factor, and the News was forced to make a distasteful choice. The Democratic primary pitted District Judge Felix D. Robertson, backed by the KKK, against Miriam A. (“Ma”) Ferguson. Her husband, former governor James E. Ferguson, had been impeached in 1917 and barred from holding any state office, but his power and influence had not lessened. Much as they disliked him, the News unhesitatingly backed his wife, and both came out swinging against the Klan. Ma Ferguson succeeded in taking the primary victory, but the party was seriously split. The Republican Party spotted its first chance at the governor’s mansion since Reconstruction and nominated Dr. George C. Butte of the UT Law Department. Though not a Kluxer himself, Butte furnished an alternative to the anti-Klan Ferguson. The News threw its full weight behind her, especially where its weight was heaviest in the northern population centers. This proved to be the difference, and Ma Ferguson won the election. The Klan was dead in Texas as of that moment.

If the Ku Klux Klan was dead, the News was alive and kicking. Always a power bloc in Dallas, it had now been catapulted into statewide prominence. With his first major victory under his wing, Dealey’s campaign to become the state newspaper of Texas was underway. The company was already growing with the addition of radio station WFAA in 1922, but circulation swelled as the paper went into every county in the state. No one was more instrumental in this than John Knott, editorial cartoonist for 45 years. His creation of Old Man Texas was gifted with articulate insight and a wry sense of humor. For years Texans turned to the editorial page to get Old Man Texas’ simplified view of the issues at hand. His voice became the voice of Texas. He was the watchdog of the candidates, the legislature, and the voters; sometimes representing the public mood and sometimes attacking it, he was whatever Knott wanted him to be.

Knott’s caricature was based on the late Jimmy Boyd of Lancaster. As Helena Robb, Knott’s daughter, heard it, Boyd came into the office one day to visit someone. Knott didn’t know him at the time, but he liked Boyd’s face and his eyecatching moustache. Knott drew his character, never changing it, up to his retirement in 1957. Knott died in 1963. “We wanted him to compile a book of his Old Man Texas cartoons,” remembers Mrs. Robb. “He kept saying ’Will do, will do, that’s a good idea.’ But of course he never did.”

Of course not. If Knott was a genius, he would have been the last to admit it. He knew his talent, but went out of his way to avoid any kind of honor. In fact, he hated compliments. Shortly before World War II, Knott was chosen as the winner of the Headliner’s Award, the prestigious top honor for an editorial cartoonist. He was invited to New York for a presentation ceremony, but adamantly refused. A representative from the Headliners called G.B. Dealey and offered to come to Dallas to present the award. Dealey agreed, and a small ceremony was arranged. When the gentleman arrived, he and Dealey went to Knott’s office. The door was locked and Knott was gone. Dealey stopped a young rookie reporter in the hall and asked where Knott was. The reporter was already familiar with Knott’s ways, and offered to get him. He ran downstairs and around the corner to the beer joint where Knott took his daily dominoes break, with some friends and libation. The reporter told him Mr. Dealey and a man from New York were at his office waiting, but Knott wouldn’t budge. The young man relayed the message, and the award was hung on Knott’s doorknob. At least, that’s the story as recalled by he cub reporter/messenger – Dick West, editorial director of the News since 1960.

Knott was an integral part of the many crusades undertaken by Dealey and the News. The editors never forced an opinion on him, but Knott knew editorial policy well. Dick West can’t recall ever changing a thing in a Knott cartoon. The editors didn’t have to ask for cartoons to accompany one of their drives, (“It wouldn’t have mattered if they had,” says West. “He didn’t listen to anyone, not me, not even G.B. Dealey.”) and they didn’t try to make suggestions. West stares at a cartoon on his wall. “Most cartoonists appreciate an editor giving him an idea. He has the record of never accepting an idea. The quickest way to get an idea thrown out the window was to suggest it to him.”

But Knott got the message when it was necessary. He was a part of the movements originated by the News that brought the council-manager form of municipal government to Dallas in 1931, constructed the Trinity River levee project, built Love Field, created a long-range Dallas plan, and more. West counts them off: Union Station, Southern Methodist University, the Federal Reserve Bank. There were some pushes that failed: Texas’ ratification of the women’s suffrage amendment, the merger of the Park Cities with Dallas, the adoption of a new state constitution.

As Texan as he was, Knott was born in Austria (in 1878). He moved to Iowa at age seven, and to Dallas in 1901. He always wanted to be a painter, but saw no money in the field, so he took a job with an engraving plant. Four years later, he started in the News’ engraving plant, sketching harnesses and machines for mail-order catalogues. In 1910 he left for two years of study at the Royal Academy of Art in Munich, Germany. He returned to the News greatly improved, and his cartoons hit the front page, quickly assuming top readership. They were later moved inside to the editorial page, some say, to get people to read editorials. Indeed, for years Knott’s daily cartoon correlated with an editorial somewhere on the page. West worked directly with Knott for several years in the editorial department as assistant editorial director, from the middle 1940’s until Knott’s retirement in 1957. He remembers Knott’s system well: “We had editorial meetings every morning, where we’d talk about what we were going to write. John would never come. But everyone that wrote an editorial would put the carbon copy on John’s desk. He’d take those things and just sit there and study them. For hours he’d just look at them. Then he’d draw his cartoon, come in and dump it on my desk, and say ’Here’s a contribution.’ Never ’my contribution’, just ’a contribution.’ I’d check it for spel-ling and so on, but they were always letter-perfect, subtle and correct. John didn’t need supervising; you just had to keep up with him.”

Even Knott didn’t seem to appreciate his sphere of influence. In one gubernatorial campaign, candidate Tom Hunter was endorsed by political powerhouse James Ferguson. Knott drew a cartoon depicting Ferguson sitting atop the Capitol with his arm around the dome, saying “Vote for my friends.” A sign on the door reads “This state owned byFerguson, family, and friends.” This drawing is said to have done more than anything else to defeat Hunter.

Mrs. Robb says many politicians have told her “I would have won if it hadn’t been for what your daddy did.” Dallas civics classes used to use his cartoons as part of their daily lessons. In 1936, Knott won Honorable Mention in the Pulitzer Prize competition and, typically, neglected to mention it to his family. “We didn’t know anything about it until one morning when we saw his picture in the paper with Margaret Mitchell, who won that year for Gone With The Wind,” says Mrs. Robb. Though he never even finished high school. Knott received an honorary Doctorate of Literature from Baylor University in 1920.

He was a loner, he was a genius, he was a mixed bag of paradoxes and idiosyn-cracies. He insisted on privacy and seclusion, yet loved teaching art courses at night at Bryan High School. His students include former News cartoonists Bill Mc-Clanahan. Glenn Moore, and Ann Too-mey, and Harold Maples of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Knott chose cartooning over his preferred career in painting because of the guaranteed steady salary. Yet he stayed in Texas even though, as his fellow cartoonist Here Ficklen notes, “It’s kind of a common thing that you don’t make any money till you’re north of St. Louis.”

Stories abound of the condition of Knott’s office. Drawings, mail, trash – all piled up on his desk and in the corners of his room. When the pile on his desk got too high and started slipping, he swept it onto the floor, where it was ready to be thrown away. Mail stacked up for months, and when his bosses suggested he answer it, he would call in a secretary, choose a letter, and dictate a full page reply. Choosing another letter, he shortened the reply to half-page: the third, to a paragraph. With a curt “That is all, miss,” the rest of the letters were thrown away.

His impromptu vacations were notorious. West recalls, “He used to just leave without telling anyone where he was going. Worse, he never said when he’d be back. I didn’t know what to tell the other cartoonists. John was an avid chess player – even played chess by postcard. Well, a lot of chess players used to meet at this park in Colorado and sit in the shade and play chess all day. John loved to go up there.” Why did the administration stand for this? ’”Cause he was a genius;he was an institution.”

It was during one of these vacations that Knott’s understudy moved into the spotlight. Here Ficklen fitted the position well, as evidenced by the postcard the editor received from Knott which read “It appears the present cartoonist is more than adequate.” Ficklen left the paper to serve in World War II, but returned to alternate with Knott on the editorial page. They became close friends, and Ficklen remembers him with as much love as respect. “The one thing I’ll never forget is how easy it seemed to him. He’d come in about 11 o’clock, but he always got it out just in time. What I did usually was the three cartoons for the weekend; he’d do the other four. But sometimes he’d say ’Have you got an idea, Ficklen?’ I’d say ’Yes, sir,’ and he’d take off.” Ficklen recounts his own story of Knott’s punctuality. “We (Ficklen and his fiancee) were going to get married in early September. We sent out the wedding invitations, and got a postcard from John in Colorado saying he was hurrying home so I could get married and take off a couple weeks. He didn’t show, and we got married six weeks late!”

Starting after World War II, the influence of the News as the voice of Texas began to fade. The paper Texas Governor W.P. Hobby once called “the Bible of Texas” began to focus more on national headlines and local issues. West puts the blame on transportation and postage costs. “It was easier to be a statewide paper in the Twenties than it is now.” The News still has the highest newspaper circulation in Texas.

Knott reached retirement age around this time; in 1943 he turned 65. But no one was telling Knott he had to get out. He probably would have ignored them. He continued, alternating with Ficklen, until 1957, when he was’ good and ready to retire. It was just like him. As he said himself, “Every child at some period of life has the imitative instinct and wants to draw. Some of them grow up and get over it. They become normal people. The others turn into artists.”

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