Memories of ‘Sparky’: How legendary ‘Peanuts’ creator inspired Santa Rosa cartoonist Stephan Pastis

As Santa Rosa and legions of “Peanuts” fans worldwide prepare to celebrate the 100th birthday of Charles Schulz on Saturday, another accomplished local cartoonist is heaping praise on the artistic father of Charlie Brown and his backyard friends.|

As Sonoma County and legions of “Peanuts” fans worldwide prepare to celebrate the 100th birthday of Charles Schulz on Saturday, another accomplished local cartoonist is heaping praise on the artistic father of Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Lucy and their backyard friends.

Stephan Pastis is the successful lawyer-turned-cartoonist who now lives in Santa Rosa and launched “Pearls Before Swine” on Dec. 31, 2001, and is syndicated in 850 newspapers around the country.

He described Schulz — known as “Sparky” by friends and family — as a mentor, an inspiration and the man who “changed the whole world of what I do, and he’s why I’m in it today.”

At the request of The Press Democrat, Pastis created a tribute drawing to honor Schulz and his centennial birthday. Pastis also took a few minutes Wednesday to discuss Schulz’s legacy, his life and why “Peanuts” still resonates today.

Here are condensed highlights of his interview with Richard Green, The Press Democrat’s executive editor.

The Press Democrat: Tell me about the drawing you’re sharing with us today: the kite-eating tree. We know this is a recurring theme that confronts Charlie Brown in “Peanuts.” What inspired you to create it?

Pastis: In the spring of 2021, I went to Minneapolis-St. Paul to see everywhere that Sparky lived as a child. I went to various houses where he, and mostly with his father, lived, and I tried to picture a young Sparky and the view from his house and to find influences in the neighborhood. The most interesting of those houses was one that faced a little kids’ baseball field, which was interesting to me because baseball plays such a prominent role in his comic strip. I stood with my back to Sparky’s front door and faced the field, and then I saw a giant tree. I swear to God, there was a huge kite stuck in it, which was so wild. Of all the trees in the world, I’m standing where Sparky once lived, and I see a kite stuck in the tree. It was hard not to feel that was some kind of message from Sparky.

PD: You’ve said Schulz inspired you to be a cartoonist. How did that happen?

Pastis: When I was a little kid, we’d go to my aunt’s home in Arcadia, California, for Christmas Day. She had a shelf full of Fawcett books of “Peanuts.” A whole row of them, and I started reading them. A lot of it I didn’t understand … filled with big words I didn’t know, like psychology and theology. It was this whole world, and to top it all off, there’s the crazy dog in the middle of it. I don’t know what the magic trick is that Sparky pulled off, but maybe it’s because he had no adults in the “Peanuts” world. It was a world just for kids. I lost myself in it. Flash-forward to third grade, and I had just read the 25th anniversary “Peanuts” jubilee book, and a teacher asked me what I wanted to be. I said a syndicated cartoonist because it’s a term I knew from his book. All I could think of as a little kid after that is that I wanted to draw. It’s like the light bulb went on.

PD: Your wife, Staci, was instrumental in helping deliver one of your greatest treasures: a Sparky original drawing. Tell us about that.

Pastis: When I was in college and law school, I was drawing all of the time, even when I should’ve been paying attention in class. I started dating Staci in the late 1980s, and she’s from Santa Rosa. So, she knows all about Sparky, and she knew how much I loved his work. She had a friend get a drawing from him for me. It was a drawing of Snoopy on his doghouse fighting the Red Baron. He signed it simply, “For Stephan – Schulz.” I have it framed and it’s on my wall right in front of me. It’s a source of inspiration to me.

PD: I know you were determined to meet Sparky, which you did in 1996 at the Warm Puppy Café at Snoopy’s Home Ice arena. What happened at that meeting?

Pastis: Well, I had read that Sparky ate at the Warm Puppy Café every morning. He was my idol, and I wanted to meet him, so I took a day off of work and went to Santa Rosa to meet him. I waited an hour, and he doesn’t show up. I thought, this is so stupid. Maybe he came earlier, and I missed him. Just as I was leaving, Sparky walked in the other door. He ordered and ate his breakfast. I waited for him to finish with his English muffin, and I got up all my courage, walked across the room, knelt at his side of the table and gave the worst opening line ever. Hi, Mr. Schulz. My name is Stephan Pastis, and I’m an attorney. He literally turned white and said he thought I was serving him a subpoena. When I told him I drew, he said to go outside to my car and bring in my work. He spent an hour looking at my drawings and offering advice. He gave me so many tips. I was just on cloud nine.

PD: Share three words with us that best describe Charles Schulz.

Pastis: What a great question. I would say innovator because he changed comic strips completely. Authentic, because he never let anyone else touch the strip. It was a full reflection of who he was. And, two more words, the greatest — because that’s who he was. He was the greatest person to ever do a comic strip. He changed every single part of the game, just like (Marlon) Brando with acting in the 1950s or (Bob) Dylan with music in the early ‘60s. Sparky changed everything. When it debuted, there was so much anxiety in the Nuclear Age. It was right about the time Russia got the bomb, and everyone was scared. “Peanuts” reflected that anxiety and loneliness. It was amazing. Can a cartoon do all of that? Yes, it can. Sparky was the person who did all of that. I just wish I could’ve had more time with him.

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