Dwane Powell (1944–2019)

Dwane Powell was an award-winning political cartoonist who spent most of his career in Raleigh, North Carolina, where he crafted an artistic chronicle of state politics. Powell brought to life in his portrayals the influential conservative Senator Jesse Helms and the colorful four-term Democratic governor Jim Hunt, among others.

Drexel Dwane Powell Jr. was born on November 7, 1944, in Lake Village (Chicot County) to Drexel Dwane Powell and Minnie Louise Ruth Powell. Not long after Powell was born, the family, which eventually included four children, moved to a farm outside McGehee (Desha County). The family grew cotton, rice, and soybeans while also raising whiteface Herefords, Brahma bulls, and Angus cows.

After graduation from McGhee High School following an undistinguished academic performance, Powell started college at Arkansas Agricultural and Mechanical College (now the University of Arkansas at Monticello). There, he played football until he suffered a shoulder injury that ended his playing days. He subsequently flunked out of college. He joined the U.S. Army National Guard and worked for a few years on the family farm before returning to school, again at Arkansas A&M. In 1970, he earned a BA in agribusiness but by that time he was no longer looking to return to the farm to work with his father.

In high school, Powell had begun pen-and-ink drawing after a school counselor gave him the needed supplies in an effort to channel Powell’s constant doodling into something more productive. He did some work for the school yearbook, and, enjoying seeing his work in print, he later drew some cartoons for the college newspaper. His work garnered some notice, and Powell was approached by the editor of the local Monticello (Drew County) newspaper, the Advance-Monticellonian. Suggesting that Powell study political news, choose a subject, and then draw a carton about it, he offered the college student $5 which, Powell recalled, was enough to buy a six-pack of beer. When his work was picked up by the Arkansas Gazette, Powell saw his future. He drew Sunday editorial cartoons for the Advance-Monticellonian up through his graduation, and most of them also appeared in the Gazette.

Powell started as a reporter-cartoonist at the Sentinel-Record in Hot Springs (Garland County), working there from 1970 to 1972 before moving on to the San Antonio Light, where he worked from 1973 to 1974. He worked for the Cincinnati Enquirer from 1974 to 1975. Late in his career, he recalled that after these early experiences, he decided that he wanted to work at a capital-city newspaper. His arrival in Raleigh and at the News & Observer in 1975, early in Jesse Helms’s first term in the U.S. Senate and right after North Carolina had elected Jim Holshouser as its first Republican governor since 1901, represented a perfect opportunity for him to showcase his distinctive style and his admittedly liberal slant, one informed by his post-college stances on civil rights.

Over the years, Powell left no political target untouched, but his creativity and pointed political commentary, while resulting in the paper receiving countless letters—both pro and con—earned him a legion of admirers. Many admirers, like frequent targets Senator Helms and Governor Hunt, asked for and displayed original copies of Powell’s work.

Powell initially retired in 2009. On Powell’s last day, however, former governor Hunt came by the News & Observer office and urged the paper’s editors to continue running his cartoons. Powell resumed his drawings on a part-time basis, and they subsequently became a staple of the Sunday edition.

Over the course of his long career, he was the recipient of numerous awards and honors. In 1979, he was named Distinguished Alumnus by University of Arkansas at Monticello, and his many cartooning awards included the Overseas Press Club Award for Excellence in Cartooning, the National Headliners Club Award for Outstanding Editorial Cartoons, and the Raleigh Medal of Arts Award. In 2013, Powell was inducted into the North Carolina Journalism Hall of Fame, and in 2018, Governor Roy Cooper presented him with the state’s highest honor, the Order of the Long Leaf Pine.

Powell published four collections of his works: Is That All You Do? (1979), Surely SOMEONE Can Still Sing Bass! (1981), The Reagan Chronicles (1987), and One Hundred Per Cent Pure Old Jess (1993).

Powell was a talented photographer who had pictures exhibited in businesses across the state and also was an accomplished musician, with the guitar being just one of the instruments he could play. He wrote music and played in a number of bands over the years.

Powell and his wife Janice were married for forty-eight years. They had one daughter, Devon.

Powell died on April 14, 2019, after a lengthy battle with cancer.

For additional information:
“Background about Dwane Powell.” Cartoonistgroup.com. https://www.cartoonistgroup.com/properties/template_about.php?id=147 (accessed March 27, 2021).

Brantley, Max, “Dwane Powell, Arkansas-Native Editorial Cartoonist, Dies at 74.” Arkansas Times, April 16, 2019. https://arktimes.com/arkansas-blog/2019/04/16/dwane-powell-arkansas-native-editorial-cartoonist-dies-at-74 (accessed March 27, 2021).

“Duane Powell.” Walter Magazine. https://www.waltermagazine.com/art-and-culture/artists-spotlight-dwane-powell/ (accessed March 27, 2021).

Quillin, Martha. “Dwane Powell, Political Cartoonist for a Generation of NC Newspaper Readers, Has Died.” News & Observer (Raleigh, North Carolina) April 15, 2019. https://www.newsobserver.com/news/local/article229034069.html (accessed March 27, 2021).

William H. Pruden III
Ravenscroft School

Last Updated: 03/27/2021

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