Steve Stark retires after more than 30 years of drawing editorial cartoons for The Forum
Steve Stark's editorial cartoons have appeared regularly in The Forum since 1989. On Saturday, Oct. 22, 2022, his farewell cartoon is published.
FARGO — Steve Stark was an avid drawer as a kid. His favorite early subjects included heroic figures from popular culture such as Tarzan, Batman and Jason and the Argonauts.
His compulsion got him in trouble with teachers who didn’t approve of his classroom doodles when they were presenting lessons on the blackboard, although he believed it actually helped his concentration.
That love of drawing would follow him to high school and college, where he dabbled with editorial cartoons for the school newspapers.
His avocation became a vocation when his first job after graduating from college and graduate school was as an editorial cartoonist and columnist for the Lake County News Chronicle, a weekly newspaper in Two Harbors, Minnesota.
Stark’s career path, which included stints as a weekly newspaper publisher, associate creative director, senior copywriter and communications specialist, ultimately led him to become an editorial cartoonist for The Forum starting in 1989.
He estimates that, as a student and professional, he’s drawn at least 4,000 editorial cartoons, lampooning the pompous and the powerful with pen and ink.
Now, after more than five decades, that cavalcade of cartoons is coming to a halt. Stark’s final editorial cartoon for The Forum is published Saturday, Oct. 22.
At age 72, the lingering effects of a stroke he suffered three years ago persuaded Stark that the time was right to retire from what has been his life's passion.
“I’m voluntarily giving up on cartooning simply because I’m so tired,” he said. “They’re taking so much time to produce. It’s just hard for me. I think it’s just time for me to give it up, although I just adore it.”
Jack Zaleski, The Forum’s former longtime editorial page editor, hired Stark and worked closely with him for years pairing editorials with related editorial cartoons.
“My first instinct was to try to talk him out of it (retiring) because he’s such a talent,” Zaleski said, recalling his reaction when Stark informed him of his decision. But Zaleski said he understands.
“I know it was very difficult to stop it, because he loved it so much,” Zaleski said. “His cartoons are some of the best work you’re going to see anywhere.”
Stark had the ability to take a request and quickly turn it into a cartoon on deadline, sometimes in a couple hours or less.
“His turnaround for doing a good cartoon was very short,” Zaleski said. “He had a distinctive style that made a difference,” including his caricatures of political figures. “He also had a very good sense of local news.”
It’s perhaps natural that Stark’s affinity for drawing led him to become an editorial cartoonist. While growing up in Excelsior, Minnesota, his family subscribed to multiple newspapers, sparking a reading habit at an early age, along with an interest in public affairs.
After dabbling in editorial cartoons in high school and at North Dakota State University, where he earned an undergraduate degree in speech and theater, Stark’s passion for drawing became his profession at the Lake County News Chronicle on the North Shore of Lake Superior.
He also published editorial cartoons in the Duluth News Tribune and Hibbing Daily News. After working as a cartoonist and columnist, the editor of the Lake County News Chronicle departed, and Stark was elevated to publisher, supervising a staff of four full-time employees for several years.
“You do it all at a weekly,” writing news and feature stories as well as editorials, taking ads and taking photographs — lots of them featuring tugboats on majestic Lake Superior, Stark said.
His weekly newspaper stint was the beginning of a varied career in communications, with cartooning on the side a fixture throughout.
Stark and his wife, Gwen, moved to Fargo in 1980, when he took a job as a communications specialist at NDSU for 10 years and began drawing editorial cartoons for The Forum. He left NDSU in 1990 to become associate creative director and senior copywriter at Flint Communications.
Stark’s role at The Forum expanded when he became marketing manager for Forum Communications Co. and assistant editorial page editor as well as a radio talk show host from 1996 to 1999.
As executive director of the Cass County Historical Society’s historic village, Bonanzaville, from 2000 to 2004, he was able to indulge his interests in history and theater. Stark, who also had a master’s degree in communicating arts and theater from the University of Wisconsin in Superior, was active with the Fargo-Moorhead Community Theatre for many years.
Besides managing the museum complex at Bonanzaville, he launched a school outreach program, appearing in elementary classrooms for talks about historical subjects, including Lewis and Clark and Theodore Roosevelt, that included sketches on long sections of newsprint taped to a wall.
“It was impressive to see” Stark’s ability to sketch figures while telling a story in front of an audience, Zaleski said.
Bill Marcil Jr., publisher of The Forum and president and CEO of its parent company, said Stark’s editorial cartoons will be missed.
“I worked closely with Steve over the years, and his passion for newspapers is unmatched,” he said. “Watching him perform as ‘Mr. History,’ creating and speaking in front of crowds of people was complete genius. I thank him for working with us for so many years.”
Stark enjoyed sharing history with children, often appearing in costume to portray a historical figure. “I loved that,” he said. His love of history was an outgrowth of his interest in news and current events.
Gwen can also see Stark’s theater influence in his editorial cartoons, especially his knack for drawing interesting faces.
“He’s drawn to characters,” she said. “I think there’s a link to that in theater.”
Stark said he tried to use humor to convey his point of view in a cartoon, sometimes sharply.
“You run the risk of offending people,” he said. “With very little exception, I don’t go out to offend anybody. I just want to make a statement.”
Stark did ruffle some feathers, and Gwen fielded more than a few complaint calls.
“Anything that had to do with abortion would stand out, get people angry,” Stark said. “That just comes with the territory, which is fine with me. That’s part of the job.”
Trygve Olson was Stark’s colleague for more than 30 years in drawing editorial cartoons for The Forum.
“Steve has got such a great sense of humor, many times hitting right to the core of an issue, not afraid to stick his neck out,” Olson said.
Stark was skilled, both in conceptualizing and drawing cartoons, a craft that demands honing away the extraneous. “It does take a fair amount of conceptualizing to get it down to the essence,” Olson said, comparing the distillation process to writing a poem.
Stark enjoyed the camaraderie and energy of the newsroom and will miss colleagues and the freedom he was given to express his views.
“What a privilege it is to have that experience with a newspaper, because I love the newspaper, and that has never stopped.”