WEST BOYLSTON - There are some people who think of Philip "Flip" Uzanas as just a cartoonist.
A talented artist, now 97 years old, he is still regularly drawing cartoons, almost out of habit. The self-taught artist was the first full-time editorial cartoonist for the Hartford Courant and worked there for 36 years. In 1949, his work was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.
What people may not know is the resident of Oakdale Rehabilitation and Skilled Nursing Center in West Boylston has done many other things during his life.
He is a founding member of the National Cartoonists Society in New York City. He also plays trumpet, chromatic harmonica and accordion and still performs occasionally. While he honed his skills as an artist over nearly a century, he also found time to play professional baseball with the Hartford All-Stars, including a game at Sing Sing Prison in Ossining, New York. He taught himself to play every position and filled in wherever he was needed.
"I decided to play them all," he said. "Catcher, I pitched, shortstop, outfield. I played them all."
Mr. Uzanas then smiled to show a tooth that was broken when, as shortstop, he ran into the outfield for a fly ball and collided with an outfielder.
"We had scouts coming in all the time to watch us play," he said. "If I only played a little harder I might have made the big leagues."
The veteran newspaperman was pretty tough in his younger days and also took a turn as a boxer. He shot hoops on a basketball team, but says he was one of the smaller players. At one time he and a friend formed a harmonica band and performed at various clubs. He said his friend was later killed during the Battle of the Bulge in World War II.
Years before that, when he was a 9-year-old, he earned 75 cents a day working in tobacco fields in Connecticut. When he was 11, he saved someone from drowning and his heroism was written about in a local paper. He also served as a member of the Army Air Corps during World War II and still has his pilot's license.
As a cartoonist, he was self-taught, studying the work of others to get an idea of how to draw.
"It was just like playing a trumpet. It was the simplest thing for me," he said, adding that he always enjoyed the thought of people viewing his cartoons in the newspaper and commenting on them.
In his career, he met many famous people, including Walt Disney. He wrote about Disney in the Courant and believes he could have gone to work for Disney Studios if he wanted to.
One time, while on a train, he interviewed Winston Churchill. "I also met Superman once," he added with a chuckle. "He came into Hartford and was at the state armory, so I went over and interviewed him," he said.
The Superman he met was George Reeves, who played the iconic comic book superhero on television.
Mr. Uzanas grew up in the Poqunoc section of Windsor, Connecticut. A local newspaper published one of his cartoons when he was 14.
"I just decided I wanted to have something for the future, so I took it on," he said. "I love it. I love cartooning."
When Mr. Uzanas joined the Air Corps, his cartooning skills were recognized and he soon found himself using his skills to promote the war effort. He also sent cartoons home to Hartford newspapers, including the Courant. He spent much of his life in Connecticut, moving to Florida after retirement. He moved to West Boylston a few years ago to be close to his daughter, Ellen.
Mr. Uzanas' collection includes many cartoons about Connecticut politics, but he also drew cartoons about national and international issues. His cartoon ran on the editorial page after the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
"We were in a bar when we heard about it," he said. "We all went running out."
Mr. Uzanas said he had little time to draw the cartoon, and was not entirely satisfied with it, but the Courant was on deadline to put out an edition to address the shock and sorrow felt by the nation. The cartoon hit the mark, showing a weeping Uncle Sam underneath portraits of Kennedy and Abraham Lincoln.
He has a scrapbook filled with letters from many famous people, but one he especially likes is from the publisher of The New York Times to his publisher at the Courant, complimenting him on his work, and saying The Times was happy to use his cartoons.
His editorial cartoons often reflected the struggles of the average man, but he also penned a cartoon announcing the start of the Korean War and cartoons of many of the presidents since World War II. Some of the World War II cartoons would not be politically correct today, but reflected the sentiment after the attack on Pearl Harbor. He also draws comic strips, mainly for himself, although at one time he considered looking for a publisher.
Mr. Uzanas may have the longest official and unofficial career as a sketch artist and cartoonist. Not many people live to be 97 and still have a hand steady enough and mind sharp enough to create clever cartoons about current events.
His style covers a wide range, from simple comic characters to complex portraits and abstract cartoons in the style of Picasso. His abstract drawings were featured in a centerpiece story in Tampa Bay Magazine.
"He is always looking for something to do," said Ildi Kolonusz, activities director for the Oakdale Center. "We ordered extra materials for him so he can keep on doing it. He has a desk in his room in the corner and he has a special light."
Ms. Kolonusz's office has several Uzanas originals drawn for her. The focus of those cartoons is the nursing home.
"I love them," she said. "I don't want him to stop doing them."
The soft-spoken and good-humored cartoonist keeps hundreds of samples of his work where he lives in West Boylston, and more are kept with family members. He said he has no idea how many cartoons and pictures he has drawn, but there are enough to open a small museum.
He continues to add to his body of work, at least when he has time away from his other interests. One of his drawings made it onto a T-shirt the nursing home made to give to residents to wear at the home's annual pig roast.
Mr. Uzanas is always looking for new ideas and has said he would love the chance to go back to work as an editorial cartoonist for a newspaper.
He is, after all, only 97.