Jerry Summers: Before Clay Bennett

Thursday, January 14, 2021
Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers

Chattanooga over the past 36 years has been fortunate to have at least three editorial cartoonists who have entertained the public with humor, sarcasm, ridicule and suggestions of often ignored recommendations on politics, sports and other subjects that would hopefully improve the image of the community that has periodically borne several titles such as the “Dynamo of Dixie”, “The Scenic City”, and most recently the “Gig City.”

Clay Bennett, a Pulitzer Prize recipient for Editorial Cartooning in 2002, of the current Chattanooga Times/Free Press since 2007, has inherited the burdens of informing the public on the above items and many others in his cartoons that are enjoyed by some readers and criticized by others.  However, like other cartoonists, Clay has tickled and irritated his readers in ways that usually bring forth compliments and complaints.  When he receives both he can be proud of his accomplishments!

Clay has the benefit of having a captive monopoly with the readers in the print media in Chattanooga with the merging of the former two separate local newspapers (Times and Free Press) that allows each to have a liberal (Times) or conservative (Free Press) as the Chattanooga Times/Free Press viewpoints.

Prior to Clay joining the Times, the paper's editorial cartoonist was Bruce Plante, beginning in 1985 who teased the increasingly conservative reading public with the Chattanooga Times prior to leaving for the Tulsa World in 2007.  Bruce’s cartoons had a much more liberal point of view, but he dodged no one or any issue with his creative comments.  He has won numerous state awards in Tennessee, Oklahoma, and the nation on timely subjects on education with his cartoons.

His 183-page pictorial treasure trove, “Predatory Plante”, published in 2001 and dedicated to his late mother, Nina Bernice Plante (1915-1990), covers many events from 1987-2001 and alternatively brings a tear to your eyes or a smile to your face as he sometimes not so gently probed the conscience of the local community, State of Tennessee and America.

If the Chattanooga Times Free Press, 400 E. 11th Street, Chattanooga, Tennessee, or planteink.com have any available copies it will be well worth your effort to try to purchase one.

The third member of the cartoon cartel who provided entertainment to our area was Bruce Bledsoe who claimed to be “a survivor of Highland Park,” and was also a Chattanooga illustrator in the community before Plante and Bennett.  In his 1981 book “Growing Pains,” a humorous satirical critique of what was wrong with our area, he also threw sometimes not so gentle barbs at politicians and institutions. To observers of their habits, traits, and often peculiarities they were surprisingly accurate depictions.

A talented country and blue grass musician, he addressed the question in the beginning of his book when he was asked whether he “was afraid to publish a negative cartoon book about Chattanooga.”

His response was “Why should I, I played music in such places as Al Steils Dine and Dance, the Five O’Clock Club, and the Wagon Wheel on Signal Mountain Boulevard - That’s Fear!”

A copy of the entertaining non-Best Seller is available for review at the Chattanooga Public Library which also includes a “thank you” to Bruce’s equally caustic columnist at the Times, Bill Casteel, for his “editorial assistance.”

The traditions of satirical humor in caricatures created by Bruce Bledsoe and Bruce Plante and continued today by Clay Bennett still provide opportunities for local citizens to review and laugh at the past and hopefully provide productive suggestions for the future.

Can you imagine what entertainment they could provide with the crowded Mayoral race for the City of Chattanooga on the ballot for March 2, 2021 donnybrook?

* * *

Jerry Summers

(If you have additional information about one of Mr. Summers' articles or have suggestions or ideas about a future Chattanooga area historical piece, please contact Mr. Summers at jsummers@summersfirm.com)


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