Who got Dennis the Menace in a laundry basket of trouble over the years? One man responsible was Pittsfield-born Donald Horrigan (1921-2013). Longtime Berkshire Eagle columnist Richard V. Happel learned about Horrigan’s 20-year association with Dennis the Menace and got in touch with him in 1982.
“Mr. Horrigan says he wanted to be a writer since his childhood days in Pittsfield,” Happel wrote. “In junior high school here he was considered the class wit, but admitted he had to tone down the humor when he entered high school because the teachers didn’t approve of it.”
Horrigan was the son of Michael J. Horrigan (1903-1938) — a decorated veteran of World War I and a Pittsfield police officer for 14 years — and his wife, Elizabeth F. (Avery) (d.1939). Horrigan went through a couple of careers as he honed his gag pen. He graduated from Pittsfield High School in 1939 attended Columbia University and New England College of Art. He served four years in the U.S. Army in North Africa and Europe from 1942-1946.
“Donald Horrigan of Baytown, Texas, formerly of Pittsfield, left yesterday for Boston University, after spending a month with his aunt, Mrs. William H. Griffin of 16 Woodbine Avenue,” The Eagle reported in 1949. “Mr. Horrigan formerly was a radio announcer on Station KREL in Baytown.”
The newspaper took note in 1955 when Horrigan married Lois Watson (1923-1996) of Dedham. At that time, the groom was employed by the U.S. Post Office in Boston. The Horrigans raised three well-mannered daughters and a son. Horrigan had a sense of humor, but became resigned to failure as a professional cartoonist. In the 1950s, he began to suggest cartoon ideas to The New Yorker and other periodicals. He landed a big fish in 1960 when Hank Ketcham, who created Dennis the Menace in 1951, liked some of his submissions. Horrigan told Happel “most of his ideas for the strip … come from watching people, ‘mostly little people,’ and how they interact with each other. By ‘little people’ he means children.”
Horrigan was never identified as a contributor to the single-panel daily comic strip — nor were the several dozen other gag writers over the years. There’s no way of knowing if this was a Horrigan caption, but here’s one typical of 1961: Dennis tells his mother, who is loading a washing machine: “The ladies on telebishion laugh an’ joke when they wash clothes!”
From 1970, Dennis and dog Ruff rush to his father, who is trying to nap on the couch: “Move over. Me an’ Ruff is gonna take a nap with you.”
But cartoonist Ketcham fully acknowledged Horrigan and other gag writers in his published autobiography and made a direct acknowledgement in a 1968 cartoon. A babysitter is seen talking on the telephone as children play around her. “I had a choice tonight of sitting for Dennis Mitchell or the four Horrigan children, so NATURALLY, I …”
Horrigan never met Ketcham (1920-2001), who lived in Switzerland or California. Communication was by telephone or mail. Horrigan ended up living, appropriately enough, in Dennis, where he was active in Democratic politics and was a campaign coordinator for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Gov. Michael Dukakis and other local candidates.
Cartoonist Ketcham had to work a dozen weeks ahead of publication, so any of Horrigan’s holiday-themed ideas had to be generated well ahead of time. He worked for Ketcham for nearly 50 years.
The gags weren’t Horrigan’s only contribution to the popular imp. According to Mark Arnold in “Pocket Full of Dennis the Menace,” a 2017 history of the comic strip, Horrigan was a scriptwriter for the animated Dennis series that appeared in 1986. The comic strip still appears, in the hands of successor writers and artists.
One of my many research interests over many years has been identifying comic strip artists and cartoonists who have had connections with the Berkshires. I described 85 of them in one of my short-run local history books, “The Past Unmasked.” But as with any research, I missed a couple: Horrigan, just described, and a local woman who appeared in “Wonder Woman.”
“The Liberator of Womankind” did not wear a superheroine costume in the style of Diana Prince — in fact, she would have probably shrieked in shock if she ever saw Wonder Woman in action. But Susan B. Anthony’s role in in championing women’s rights and particularly the right to vote came in for a five-page treatment in Wonder Woman No. 5, July 1943. The text was by DC Comics’ associate editor Alice Marble, the art by Sheldon Moldoff.