Capital Cartoonist Extraordinaire
Eric Smith, the longtime political cartoonist and columnist for The Capital newspaper, is a tough guy to figure out. One minute he's tossing around swear words like a seasoned sailor, the next minute he is giving advice on finding true love - pretty great advice, in fact. Then he's right back to using those nautical terms he is so fond of, but still managing to make a valid point.
"If you say it's black, Eric is going to make you explain why you think it is black," said Stephen Carr, his close and longtime friend. "I think that's why our friendship has lasted so long. He's not going to let you just give your opinion without backing it up. He'll ask you why you think that and how you know that."
So how did a thinking man like Eric become a political cartoonist? Did he go to art school? Did he spend all day in his room grimacing over the political columns and laughing at the comics?
Eric did none of this. He went to law school, never considering that he could make a living doing the one thing he truly loved, the one thing that had always kept him out of trouble - drawing. Thankfully for him, his wife - his true love - set him straight.
In a family of 50 first cousins, Eric started drawing as a child simply to get attention.
"My sister was an award-winning artist as a child and I noticed that when she showed her work, she got all this attention," Eric says. "So I started drawing too."
His father, a successful lawyer in a Long Island town of many successful lawyers, suggested Eric show his work to his high school newspaper staff, who jumped at anything that would fill the page.
"I said the words, 'I'm a cartoonist - ' and they said I was in," Eric remembers. "They didn't even let me finish, they were so desperate."
Suddenly, Eric stood out among the students in his all boys' Catholic high school.
"My grades improved. My social life improved. My skin improved," he says.
The day he was sold on being a political cartoonist was the day he was asked to draw a caricature of the school's most popular boy, who was bigger and older and of whom Eric admits he was a bit jealous. Needless to say, the portrait was not a favorable one and Eric happened to be nearby when the boy and all of his friends saw it for the first time.
"He said to me, 'Nice picture, Smith,' and gave a half laugh although I could tell he didn't like it," Eric says. "It was then that I realized how much power I had. I could tell this guy really wanted to hit me, but couldn't because I hadn't done anything wrong. There will be politicians out there who will hate me for what I've drawn but all they can do is call and complain because really I've done nothing wrong."
Eric's mighty pen is a bit softer these days.
"I used to be really mean but I've become more gentle in my old age," Eric says. "I realize now that I don't have all the answers and they don't have all the answers either."
While in undergraduate school at Georgetown University where he also attended law school, Eric continued to have success drawing political cartoons for several newspapers and magazines on campus. However, in Vietnam, where he served as an Army interrogator, the response was not so favorable.
"I would draw caricatures of my commanding officers," Eric says. "One officer said, 'Smith, if you weren't already in Vietnam, I would ship you off to Vietnam.'"
Ten and a half months into his one-year tour of duty, Eric's wife, JanElaine, figured out a way to get her husband home early - she got him into graduate school.
"My wife is a card-carrying genius," Eric says. "She outsmarts me at every move. She knows what I am going to do two days before I do it. And somehow she had researched a way to get me out of Vietnam by getting me into graduate school. No one had ever done this before. My commanding officer said there was no way I could do it and I asked, 'But where does it say that I am not allowed to do it?'"
At first, Eric said "no" to the idea because he did not want to leave his fellow soldiers. But, finally, even guilt wasn't enough to keep him in Vietnam.
"I still thank my wife to this day, but she says she didn't do it for me, she did it for her. She wanted her husband back," he says.
Instead of graduate school, Eric decided to follow through on his earlier plans to go to law school. But while the law interested him, law school did not. Once again, JanElaine came through and suggested he start drawing again to keep him happy while he earned his degree.
"It always goes back to her," he says. "If I tell her I'm going to do something, that means I have to do it. I don't want to disappoint her. That's why I will never say I want to be president of the United States."
Eric met Jan Elaine on vacation at a Michigan resort where she worked. By his fourth day of vacation and his third date with her, he knew he wanted to marry her, but he also knew he couldn't tell her that, for fear it might freak her out.
"We got into a fight that night and she said, 'You're the only man I could ever see myself spending the rest of my life with and this is the way you treat me,'" Eric remembers. "And I said, 'Oh... I was just thinking the same thing, that I could marry you.' Suddenly, we had nothing to fight about and went back to the party. When it's true love, it's easy."
While in law school, Eric began freelancing for a variety of publications in the area. One day, a friend of his brought him a copy of The Capital.
"He knew I was always looking for publications that didn't have political cartoonists and The Capital was one of them," Eric says. "So I went to my wife and said, 'What would you think about me submitting some cartoons to this newspaper on a freelance basis?' And my wife, who has a way of talking me through things to reach a better conclusion, said, 'How about we get in the car and I drive you to the newspaper and you submit your samples in person?'"
When the couple arrived in Annapolis and Eric got out of the car, JanElaine shut the door, locked it, rolled down her window and said, "Come back with a job."
Eric managed to talk his way into see the executive editor, Ed Casey, who simply said, "These are good. How much?"
Eric was hired on a freelance basis -- $15 per cartoon. But before he walked out of Ed's office, he managed to get in a request for the paper to consider eventually hiring him full-time. Two months later, Eric was given the chance to prove himself. Ed called him and told him a politician had changed his vote at the last second and the newspaper wanted to call him out on it in a cartoon. Eric had to come up with an idea for a cartoon right then and there, with Ed waiting on the phone.
"I did it, and was able to show them that they needed someone like me," Eric says. "I was hired in July, 1972, and was finally doing the job I always secretly wanted to do."
His friend Stephen says he believes Eric's political cartoons are enjoyable to read because Eric is, first and foremost, a good artist.
"There are other cartoonists who are famous for what they do and I don't read their cartoons because I can't stand their drawings," Stephen says. "Eric is an extremely good artist who also has a good sense of what images can be attached to a particular topic. He's good at picking images that everyone can relate to, whether you are black, white, young, old, whatever."
In the 33 years since he joined The Capital, Eric has become the newspaper's weekly "Cityscape" columnist, has had three books published, and has served on the boards of numerous nonprofit organizations, often managing their finances. One of these organizations, the Georgetown University Library Advisory Board, asked him to give the school all of his original drawings to serve as one of the library's personal art collections.
"They didn't have a political cartoonist in their collection," he says. "So, now there is the Eric Smith Collection in the library. Because of this, I am considered a big donor to the school, which amuses my wife and me immensely."
Eric, who lives with his wife and their rescue cat Sugar near Maryland Hall in Annapolis, says he will continue to be The Capital political cartoonist for as long as the paper will have him.
"I have been offered other jobs in bigger cities, but I love Annapolis and I don't give a s**t about the money," he says, returning to those nautical terms again. "In a city the size of Annapolis, you can reach the community more and that's what I care about."