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Garry Trudeau talks about Saranac Lake

July 1, 2010
By PETER CROWLEY, Enterprise Managing Editor

SARANAC LAKE- Garry Trudeau once considered going into the family business here. That didn't last long.

On Tuesday evening, the Doonesbury cartoonist returned to the Saranac Laboratory where, during high school in the 1960s, he worked a summer job for Trudeau Institute. The medical research group had been named for his great-grandfather, Dr. Edward Livingston Trudeau, who essentially founded this village as a tuberculosis cure center.

For the first half of that summer, the young Trudeau prepared slides at the old Church Street lab where his great-grandfather had once studied the TB bacteria. For the summer's second half, he worked at the Institute's then-new facility on Lower Saranac Lake.

Article Photos

Garry Trudeau smiles as he listens to a roundtable discussion of the Patriot Hills project Tuesday at the Saranac Lake Free Library.
(Enterprise photo — Chris Knight)

"My triumph up there (at the new lab) was that the prize piece of equipment was a Zeiss electron microscope ... and I threw it out of alignment the first week I was working up there. And they had to fly in a team from Munich or Dusseldorf to repair it. So I'm hoping that summer has been forgotten by the people who are working up there.

"I think part of it (the summer job) was certainly in respect to the family tradition, and seeing whether I might be interested in a career in research ... and that cured me. That was the summer I decided I really did want to be an artist and that I didn't have much future as a scientist."

Garretson Beekman Trudeau was born in New York City on July 21, 1948, the son of Dr. Francis B. Trudeau of Saranac Lake and his wife Jean. Garry grew up largely in Saranac Lake, going to Lake Colby School for his early years and living here during breaks from his downstate boarding school.

Doonesbury, which he started in 1969, went on to be one of the famous comic strips in U.S. history, earning Trudeau the 1975 Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning - the first comic strip so honored.

Locally, he is known for designing the Saranac Lake Winter Carnival buttons for each of the last 30 years, starting in 1981. He has also been a Trudeau Institute trustee, a role now played by his stepmother Ursula (Wyatt) Trudeau, who still lives in Saranac Lake. Garry lives in New York City with his wife, television journalist Jane Pauley; they have three children: twins Rachel and Ross, and Thomas.

Doonesbury is still vibrant, witty and topical, lampooning current events as they're happening. In addition to the side stories of its many characters, Trudeau has delved seriously into the national story of soldiers' personal hardships during and after their tours of duty. This "after" aspect is what lines him up with the Patriot Hills at Saranac Lake proposal, a retreat and reintegration center for soldiers and veterans. That issue is what drew him into the public sphere in his old hometown Tuesday.

Amid a busy cocktail reception at the now-renovated Saranac Laboratory, between book-signing requests, the Enterprise managed to ask him a few questions about his relationship with the village.


ADIRONDACK DAILY ENTERPRISE: What other things do you remember about Saranac Lake? What things stand out? You went to kindergarten here; am I right about that?

GARRY TRUDEAU: Yeah, kindergarten. I don't want to get it wrong, but I think Lake Colby had something called pre-first. ... So I was there for the full six years at Colby.

My uncle taught at a school down outside of New York. He was a Latin teacher. My parents said, "That's a really good school down there." I said, "What's wrong with here? This is where all my friends are." "No, we think that if you went down and went to this place called Harvey ... it's a great opportunity; it'll increase your options for where you might go to college."

So, I went to Yale. The first day I arrived at Yale, I'm walking down the street and I see Tommy Delahant, whose mom was my dad's secretary. He's just been accepted to Yale. And I thought, "Wait a minute! I had to leave Saranac Lake, leave my friends, leave the school on this premise that I'd never be able to get into a really good college, and Tommy stayed here and did great, got into Yale." He's a brilliant guy.


ADE: How often do you come back to Saranac Lake?

GT: In recent times, about once a year. When the kids were growing up we came up more frequently. ... We see Ursula a lot because she travels a lot. She stays with us in New York. She's our gypsy grandmother who shows up without warning: "I'm on my way to Mexico."

But I have very strong affection for the community and my home. It didn't take much persuasion to get me involved in this (Patriot Hills), and as I say and as I was telling you earlier, I'm not sure what shape that will take.


ADE: When you come, do you stay with Ursula?

GT: Yeah.


ADE: And when you come, what do you notice, or what do you think? Is there anything that's not here anymore that you miss? Is there anything that's here right now that you like or you dislike?

GT: It's amazing how similar it is. And maybe it's because I've adjusted my memories as I've come up year after year ... but it's pretty idyllic, I have to say. It was certainly a time when parents didn't micromanage so much. They didn't hover over their children. My friends and I would just take off into the woods after school. Nobody asked where we were going; you just get home in time for dinner. And the world isn't like that anymore - not where I live anyway, in New York. And I think it did teach resilience and made for a more self-reliant generation of kids.

The good news, about my generation and our relationship with our children, is that they've never been closer. (But) I think that we have in some ways (hampered) their emotional maturation by getting too involved in solving their problems. ... When I was in college, I called home as infrequently as possible. ... I called home to say hi, but I never called home to talk about issues with the dean or "I'm sick" or "I'm this" or "I'm that." It was a different way of raising children.

And last night I came down to turn off the lights, and the front door was open. The screen door was closed so the bugs didn't get in, but the front door was open. I miss that.

(Regarding what else he misses) There are a few obvious landmarks, buildings that have burned down or were torn down. The Pontiac Theater ... I would go to Meyer's drug store and get my cheeseburger and then go see a movie at the Pontiac Theater for a quarter. ... It's sort of sad there's no movie house here anymore.

But on the other hand, it's nice to see stuff like the River Walk and the train station and the carousel and the laboratory. It's nice to see that the town cares about moving forward and improving itself. ... This stuff (the renovated laboratory) is blowing me away. I can't wait to go up(stairs) and look at my old space. It was pretty ratty when I worked there.


ADE: Has any of Saranac Lake in any way made it into Doonesbury?

GT: I've mentioned it a couple times in the strip, just as a little shout-out, but you know, it all feeds in. I'm not a writer who stands with a pen in my pocket, taking notes as I move through life. It just all comes back in.



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