Spotlight Award winner draws on experience

Pulitzer-winning alumnus took a non-traditional path

Mike Keefe didn’t mean to be a cartoonist.

With bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mathematics from the University of Missouri-Kansas City under his belt, he was on his way to earning his doctorate in the 1970s. He had become politically passionate a few years earlier as a U.S. Marine who opposed the war and was outraged by the Kent State massacre. He found cartooning a perfect hobby and way to express his opinions in a weekly cartoon for the student newspaper, the University News.

“While graduating and becoming a T.A. (teaching assistant) and master’s student, I continued to draw political cartoons,” said Keefe (B.S. ’73, M.S. ’74), recipient of the 2014 UMKC Spotlight Award. “It was fun, but my intention was to get a Ph.D.”

During that time, Keefe started looking into the job market in math.

“This was during a deep recession, and prospects did not look good,” said Keefe, who lives in Denver. “I thought, ‘Maybe I should look into cartooning.’ ”

The rest is history. In 1975, he was hired by The Denver Post, and after 36 years at the paper he earned journalism’s highest award – the Pulitzer Prize — for editorial cartooning in 2011. Keefe, who retired in late 2011, said the Pulitzer was an important way to wrap up a career he never planned.

“I guess I view winning the Pulitzer as validation for my choice to leave mathematics and enter journalism,” he said. “But the greatest satisfaction has come from spending a career doing something I love — something I’d do for no pay if necessary.”

The Pulitzer jury cited his “widely ranging cartoons that employ a loose, expressive style to send strong, witty messages.” With more than 8,800 cartoons in his Denver Post career that reached more than 600,000 people each day, Keefe’s work has had national visibility.

The Spotlight Award, given at next month’s annual UMKC Alumni Awards, recognizes one alumnus, faculty member, student and/or constituent leader whose accomplishments, leadership and public service have caused regional and national attention to be focused on the university and the metropolitan area.

Keefe has, indeed, brought attention to UMKC. And he has always remembered the lessons he learned as a student.

“Even though I never professionally taught or practiced mathematics, the discipline I learned in that field has been enormously helpful,” Keefe said. “Logical thinking. Inductive and deductive reasoning.”

Keefe parlayed those skills — combined with a savvy wit and a talent for distilling complex issues into a concise image — to create thousands of drawings, including regular work for USA Today and AOL. He returned to UMKC in 2012 to be a keynote speaker at Commencement.

And he has words of encouragement for us all.

“Taking a wild turn in your career does not necessarily mean that everything before it was wasted,” Keefe said. “We all encounter the unexpected. Sometimes you create that change. And mostly, that’s good.”

Keefe’s   award, and those of the other alumni honorees, one from each school and the
five university-wide awards of distinction, will be presented April 24 at the 2014 Alumni Awards luncheon.

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