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After more than 40 years as an editorial cartoonist, West St. Paul native Steve Sack is retiring. He’s best known as a Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist for the Star Tribune.
“Any time there’s a piece of paper in front of me, I’ll be sketching and doodling,” Sack said. “Just for the sheer pleasure of it. That’s been my entire life since I was a child.”
Born and raised in West St. Paul, Sack grew up on Ohio Street off Emerson. His parents lived there until just before the pandemic when they sold the family home and moved into nearby assisted living.
Today Sack lives in Bloomington with his wife Beth. But he returns to West St. Paul on a regular basis, whether it’s to visit his parents or take his grandchildren to Dodge Nature Center.
West St. Paul Memories
“It was a great place to be a kid,” Sack said. “Back in those days, kids were let loose. In the morning, I’d hop on my bike with all my friends and we’d travel in little packs around the neighborhood. By noon we’re back for lunch and then out at it again.”
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, West St. Paul wasn’t the fully developed suburb it is today. South of Emerson, it was mostly undeveloped. Several east-west streets we rely on today didn’t even go all the way through, including Moreland, Emerson, and Thompson. Sack lived near undeveloped fields and forest around Mud Lake that today is fully developed except for a small park around what’s left of Mud Lake. (This 1957 aerial photo gives a good perspective of what it would have been like during Sack’s childhood.)
“We just loved Mud Lake,” Sack said. “We’d go there to play and catch turtles and there was a little wooded area where we built forts. Oh, it was a wonderful childhood.”
Sack and his friends had to cross a pasture to get to the forest where they played, which meant getting past Mr. Sperl’s cows.
“When we were little, we were terrified of those cows,” Sack said. “One time they got out and we were sure they were coming for us.”
Another time Sack and a half dozen of his friends ventured into the pasture with shovels and dug a pit. They covered it with sticks and put some grass on top.
“We wanted to catch a cow,” Sack said. “It’s a good thing they never went near that trap because they would have broken a leg or something like that. We were determined—it was us versus the cows.”
Sack also remembers cheap Saturday afternoon movies at the West Twins Theater on Robert Street. Originally opened in 1939 to national acclaim, by Sack’s time it had lost some of the glamor. He remembers his father dropping him off on Saturday afternoon and the place being full of kids with little to no adult supervision.
“It was just sheer mayhem. It was packed with kids, the main floor and the balcony, and people were throwing food and rolling jawbreakers down the floor and throwing pop at the screen.” Sack said. “It was a magical place: You could see movies and hang out with kids and eat candy. What more could you ask for?”
Inspiration at the Local Library
The library used to be located on Emerson, and Sack would walk to the library every Saturday.
“I would sit and look at the magazines because they had cartoons,” Sack said. “I had no idea back then that I’d ever be a cartoonist. Looking back, I’m sure it laid the groundwork for my later career.”
In those days there weren’t many houses between Sack’s home and the library, so he’d take a route through the woods.
“One time in the fall I saw a little red-belly snake and I thought that was the coolest thing,” Sack said. “So I put it in my pocket and continued on to the library, looked at my magazines with a little snake in my pocket. I don’t know how many other people bring snakes to libraries, but I sure did.”
Schooled in West St. Paul
Sack attended local schools, including St. Joseph’s, Grass Junior High, and the old Sibley High School on Bernard Street. Sack’s class moved to the new Henry Sibley High School, now known as Two Rivers, during their senior year and became the first class to graduate from the new building.
While Sack has never drawn anything specifically about West St. Paul, he did consider an idea about the high school.
“I did have an idea for a cartoon about changing the name of Sibley High School,” Sack said. “It didn’t quite make the cut.”
While there have been a lot of changes since Sack grew up in West St. Paul, he takes it in stride.
“It’s the same changes you see everywhere—more and more businesses where it used to be open space. A lot of the stores and shops that I used to remember are no longer there, but those are natural changes,” Sack said. “But the things that are important to me are basically still there—Dodge Nature Center, and the old neighborhood still looks the same.”
Launching a Career
Always interested in art, Sack knew he would find some kind of career in the arts, but he didn’t know what. The answer came at the University of Minnesota while working as an illustrator for the student newspaper, the Minnesota Daily.
“I saw that the guy doing cartoons for the newspaper was being paid a lot more than the illustrators were,” Sack said. “So I waited for an opportunity and when he took a leave of absence I hopped into his chair and never left.”
Sack spent two years doing editorial cartoons for the Minnesota Daily before being offered a job in Fort Wayne, Indiana. He spent three years there before landing the job at the Star Tribune where he would draw cartoons for the next 40 years until his retirement.
“Back in college, I didn’t even know cartooning was a profession,” Sack said. “I didn’t know it was something I could make a living at.”
Want a Career in Cartooning?
And it might not be a viable profession anymore.
“It’s a shrinking field,” Sack said. “There are fewer than 20 full-time staff editorial cartoonists in the country. There are more senators than there are cartoonists.”
While Sack laments the difficulty of finding work in the field today, he is encouraged by all the opportunities to learn. Technology makes it easy to find and study cartoonists as well as pick up artistic skills through YouTube videos.
“The best way to learn is to pick artists you admire and copy their work, study their work,” Sack said. “Not steal their work, not claim it as your own, but look at the things about those artists you admire the most, and that’s what becomes your own style.”
That’s what aspiring artists need to do to set themselves apart.
“Art is extremely competitive—it’s hard to make a living,” Sack said. “But there are resources out there to help you hone your skills and give yourself a better shot than the guy next door who’s not doing those things.”
Striking a Nerve
Sack is perhaps best known for the biting commentary of political cartoons. A majority of the cartoons that earned him a Pulitzer Prize in 2013 focused on politics.
“In a sense, it’s like going to the doctor. You don’t go to a doctor and tell them what feels great. You go to a doctor and tell them what’s wrong,” Sack said. “As a cartoonist, I start my day and say, ‘What’s wrong with the world and what do I think should be done to fix it?”
That can be a challenge in today’s political climate, which Sack describes as “pretty rotten.”
“Our politics have gotten harsher and it’s really unfortunate,” Sack said. “I think it’s bad for our country.”
“Many of our politicians are trying to cater to the angriest and loudest voices,” Sack said. “I think a lot of sensible people are pulling back—they don’t want to get involved because of that.”
That kind of divisiveness can make you thankful for retirement.
“The idea of doing cartoons for another Biden vs. Trump presidential campaign, if it comes to that, really makes me sick,” Sack said. “I will not miss being a part of that.”
All that negativity can lead to cynicism, but for the most part Sack says he hasn’t given in.
“I consider myself a realist,” Sack said. “You see the world as it is.”
But there are some issues that push him into cynicism.
“I’ve been doing cartoons about guns since I started, and I find it infuriating,” Sack said. “This recent horrible event in Buffalo shows how serious that problem has become and it just gets worse and worse. How can you not be cynical about that?” [Editor’s Note: This interview was conducted four days before the Uvalde, Texas school shooting.]
But it’s not all politics.
“As an editorial cartoonist, my beat is the universe,” Sack said. “I do religion, I do sports, I do politics—whatever people are talking about.”
What’s Next for Steve Sack
As Sack moves into retirement, he hopes to spend more time with family. He’s also hoping to continue his artwork with more painting and sculpting, and do some traveling as well.
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