Bil Keane, the Catholic cartoonist who originated the comic strip "The Family Circus" more than 50 years ago, died Nov. 8 at age 89 in Paradise Valley, Ariz., of congestive heart failure.

Born William Aloysius Keane in Philadelphia, he taught himself to draw while a student at Northeast Catholic High School in Philadelphia. But the urge to do cartoons started even earlier.

While a sixth grader at St. William School in Philadelphia, Keane drew a picture of his teacher, Immaculate Heart of Mary Sister Ann. When she caught a glimpse of his art, she decided the class needed its own newspaper and Keane should be editor. Sister Ann also told Keane that she'd pray for his future success as a cartoonist.

"The Family Circus," originally called "The Family Circle" until Family Circle magazine objected, retained its circular, single-panel comic shape throughout its history. In 1982, he won the National Cartoonists Society's top honor as cartoonist of the year.

Keane also won the 1992 Elizabeth Ann Seton Award from the National Catholic Educational Association for his "steadfast commitment to a Catholic way of life and his steadfast promotion of strong family values to his 100 million daily readers."

He returned the favor by illustrating Catholic Schools Week posters for the NCEA in the 1990s. Even now, a 2011-12 NCEA calendar features a dozen Keane "Family Circus" illustrations from past NCEA national marketing campaigns. The NCEA's poster for its 2012 convention also features a Keane illustration.

"I'm always happy to do it because I feel I'm using my God-given talent to help others (and) convey to people the benefits of a good Christian life," Keane once said.

While the worship depicted in "The Family Circus" is of a generic Christian nature, Keane told St. Anthony Messenger it came from the family's long connection to the Catholic Church. "I draw out of my lifestyle," Bil said. "I grew up Catholic, my kids grew up Catholic."

Keane and Thelma, who died in 2008, had five children. Son Jeff later worked alongside his father on "The Family Circus," first completing his father's sketches and now drawing the strip from start to finish.


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