Chet Helms & Charles M. Schulz

Note: The above title is, uh, a bit misleading. OK, make that totally misleading. I don’t know if Chet knew or ever met Mr. Schulz. They didn’t exactly travel in the same circles, but Chet knew so many people in the Bay Area, you never know. (I know, I know, that’s two ‘knows’ and two ‘knews’ in consecutive sentences, not to mention two more ‘knows’ in this parenthetical.  So before this gets even more ridiculous, let’s move on to some other words, shall we?)

If this isn’t about Chet and Mr. Schulz, what is it about? Well, it’s about me and Mr. Schulz. But for anyone patient or bored enough to read what follows, there is a Chet connection (of sorts) at the end.

In the late ’70s I was, for reasons I still don’t understand, invited to participate in a book project with the tennis legend, Billie Jean King, and the equally legendary cartoonist/philosopher, Charles M Schulz. The book would be called “Tennis Love” and Mr. Schulz would contribute 50 original Snoopy illustrations.

For the next year or so, I met regularly with Billie Jean and periodically with Mr. Schulz and we ended up with a manuscript and over four dozen brilliant drawings of Snoopy. (At our first meeting, Mr. Schulz, who was and is one of the nicest people I have ever met, told me to call him by his nickname, “Sparky.”)

One fall morning, an eternity after the manuscript and artwork had been shipped off to Simon & Schuster, I was wandering the aisles of a small bookstore a few blocks from my San Mateo, CA  hovel when the spine of a book on a shelf in the sports section caught my eye.  The title sounded vaguely familiar, probably because it was the title of the book I had worked on for so long.  I snatched the book off the shelf and saw, for the first time, the wonderful front cover – a photograph of Billie Jean clad in her work togs, standing next to Snoopy on one of the grass courts at Forest Hills. I also couldn’t help but notice my name on the cover. I bought the book.

Flash forward about a year. I accompanied Sparky and his lovely wife to a women’s tennis match at the Oakland Coliseum, which is now called something like the WD 40/Burger King/Bud Light/iPlace. During a break in the match, I handed Sparky my copy of the book and asked if he’d autograph it for me.  He said he would, took a pen out of his pocket, opened the book and set to work. Fully three or four minutes later he closed the book, handed it to me and re-pocketed his pen.  As much as I wanted to see what had taken him so long to write, I didn’t look at the inscription until I got home later that night.  When I finally did see it, I was stunned. It was only a few words long: “To Greg with friendship – Sparky.”

 Turns out that what had taken him so much time was the large drawing of a pigeon-pawed Snoopy, swinging a tennis racquet.

 I treasure that book. And I treasure the memories of the conversations I had with Sparky.

 Now here’s the promised payoff: During my research into Chet’s life, two people have told me that Chet was absolutely convinced that Charles M. Schulz smoked a lot of pot, saying that only a pothead could have come up with some of the stuff that flowed from Schulz’s talented pen.

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Published in: on May 26, 2010 at 11:42 pm  Leave a Comment