EASTON — Local award-winning political cartoonist and columnist Rick Kollinger died at home in Easton on Monday, May 31. He was 71.
Kollinger’s political humor drew both ire and admiration. His trenchant and politically conservative satire was a fixture on the opinion pages of The Star Democrat and its sister newspapers including the Kent County News for decades.
The Easton native’s first regular column “of political commentary and humor” appeared on March 23, 2004. His cartoon depicting a tearful soldier against the backdrop of the American flag was featured in the Memorial Day edition of The Star Democrat on Sunday, May 30.
“He was always a huge fan of Memorial Day,” said his wife Tracy. He looked forward to hanging the American flag outside.
“Rick’s intellectual wit and humor inspired a world of emotions through his cartoons, and our community was his world,” wrote Jim Normandin, APG Chesapeake Publisher and CEO. “His passing is such a loss for our community.”
Easton native and Star Democrat editor emeritus Denise Riley was executive editor when she signed on Kollinger to write a column to accompany his cartoons. Larry Effingham was the publisher.
“Denise had such a knack of putting such a great team of reporters and editors together, and so for a newspaper the size of the Democrat to have our own political cartoonist — I thought that was a real coup,” Effingham said.
“Those were the days of Gov. William Donald Schaefer. He made the comment about the outhouse of the Eastern Shore, and one of my favorite things was to see Kollinger’s cartoon just sticking it to him. And then when Rick actually produced an annual calendar – for me it was another little tool to send a message to Willie Don. We actually used it as a premium for our readers, and any new subscribers we would give it to them for free,” Effingham said.
Kollinger’s humor was self-deprecating. When he wasn’t satirizing the self-important, he specialized in telling stories that poked fun at himself or shined a light on his — or his dogs’ — foibles.
In one of his many columns featuring his favorite Jack Russell terrier Tater, Kollinger wrote, “those familiar with the breed know the difference between a terrier and a terrorist is that sometimes you can negotiate with a terrorist. Tater is stubborn, disloyal, obnoxious, hard headed, lazy and cranky, while I’m, well, taller. Now that I think about, Tater has all the characteristics needed to run for office in this county.”
Kollinger loved his dogs, and they — including Flash, Bug, Jack and others — provided rich material for his columns.
“I miss my dogs. I want to be buried next to my dogs,” he said in November 2020. “If I get better, I’ll get another dog, a Jack Russell.”
“I think one of the things I like best about dogs is their complete lack of self-consciousness,” Kollinger wrote in January 2017. “They happily go about their day doing disgusting things to themselves and to one another without a second thought. There is no political correctness in dog world.”
Kollinger eschewed political correctness in the human world. Few politicians or those plagued with pomposity escaped his satirical Faber-Castell brushes.But when it came to former Maryland Governor Parris Glendening, Kollinger’s cynical pen was “dipped in acid,” according to former Baltimore Sun columnist Michael Olesker in 1998.“‘Schaefer was a lightning rod … This guy, it’s just words,’” Kollinger said of Glendening. But an even worse trait was dullness.
“‘Yeah, dull and honest, there’s nothing worse,’ Kollinger says. ‘I had that problem with Harry Hughes. Rehrman, who knows? Ellen Sauerbrey, of course, she made all that fuss about dead people voting. Heck, I don’t have too much problem with the dead voting. But I don’t know why they always have to vote Democratic,’” Olesker wrote.Kollinger was born on Dec. 30, 1949, in Franklin, Va., the son of Bill and Alice Kollinger, who had moved to Easton in 1946. His older brother Davis was already on the scene when his kid brother arrived early while his family was visiting his maternal grandmother in nearby Courtland.
He played Little League baseball and “had a wicked curveball that took him farther in baseball than he deserved,” Tracy Kollinger said.
In high school, Kollinger “was a pretty quiet, low-key guy, but he was funny,” said longtime friend Bruce Perry. “He was a fun guy to be around, but he was absolutely not the class clown.” He began practicing his craft as a cartoonist for The Eastonian, Easton High School’s newspaper.
Perry remembers Kollinger hanging out with classmates at Trader’s Pharmacy after school and “breezing the (Tastee-)Freez” on weekends — places Kollinger has reminisced about in his columns.
“He remembered a lot of local history and a lot of local people, and when the occasion (called) for it he (could) write a column that could just cause you to sob, it’s so moving,” Riley said.
Former state Sen. Richard Colburn, who represented District 37 for 20 years, also went to school with Kollinger and enjoyed being the subject of an occasional cartoon, but one of his favorites was Kollinger’s attempt to educate “come-here’s,” by depicting Native Americans with chickens trying to explain to colonists the difference between the correct pronunciation of “Tall-butt” County versus “Towel-butt.”Kollinger “barely” graduated in 1967, he said. “I got a draft deferment, which was fortunate. And I had bad knees. I wasn’t 4F — I forget the classification. But in case of a nuclear attack, I think I could have been drafted.”
After earning an associate degree from Chesapeake College in 1970, he went on to then-Salisbury State College, majoring in political science “with a side of everything else” and graduating in 1973.
For a short while during college, he portrayed a “bad guy” at Frontier Town in Berlin. “That was one of the best jobs I’ve ever had. I was one of the guys that robbed the stagecoach. I was a part-time guy, but I look disreputable,” he said.
“I ended up being a bureaucrat,” Kollinger said, referring to his 15-year tenure as a city water inspector, with his front-row seat to the sausage-making show called small-town politics, which “was just corrupt, absolutely corrupt,” he said. Doing “as little as possible,” he said he “made sure the water was drinkable.”
But the job fueled his “doodling” on the side, and his political cartoons (under an assumed name) made it into the local papers. The mayor couldn’t figure out how the cartoonist was getting his material, and he wasn’t happy about it, Kollinger said. That hobby propelled him into his future career as a nationally respected, award-winning political cartoonist.
“Drawing cartoons is the only thing I’m even mildly competent in,” Kollinger said in typical understated fashion during a 2014 interview.
When he returned to Easton, he worked for Aqua Pools for a decade. He also observed local politics, continuing his running commentary via cartoons until he began penning his columns.
Easton native Philip Carey Foster, a Democrat, is a former member of the Talbot County Council, former Talbot State’s Attorney and former member of the House of Delegates. He graduated from Easton High School a couple of years before Kollinger and doesn’t remember him well from school, but for many of the 40 years Foster occupied office space on the second floor of the Stewart Building in Easton, Kollinger’s office was on the third floor.
“So I would see him from time to time,” Foster said. “Of course, you always knew when he’d been in the elevator because if the door opened and smoke billowed out, Rick had been blowing smoke on the ‘Do Not Smoke’ sign in the elevator.”
Kollinger reveled in his self-defined role as irreverent iconoclast.
Once he “broke into” the late Rev. Billy Graham’s retreat in Nashville because he didn’t want to pay the “high prices for the hotel.” Kollinger devised his own letterhead — “I came up with a Presbyterian-sounding church” — and managed to “stay there for a week for free,” avoiding the genuine clergy “as much as possible.”
“I did actually go to a meeting, and the guy next to me had a good voice. I told him he may want to look into a singing career,” Kollinger said. “It kind of gave me away.” The singer was George Beverly Shea, the premier soloist at Graham’s evangelistic crusades for decades.
Kollinger was prolific, estimating that he had drawn some 18,000 cartoons.
What inspires his own cartoons? “Just about anything does it. A good cartoon should be a metaphor, so the inspiration can come from any daily job or situation that I see that I can compare to something in politics,” Kollinger said.
Throughout his career, Kollinger’s wide range of styles and perspectives — caricature, minimalist, complex and everything in between — were noticed and rewarded by his peers. He was a member of the American Association of Editorial Cartoonists.
“I’ve been blessed to be in the business. I’ve met a lot of interesting people,” Kollinger said.
A member of the Maryland|Delaware|D.C. Press Association, Kollinger won dozens of awards — many first place — for editorial cartooning, including “Best in Show” for several years. He won the national Fischetti Award for Editorial Cartooning and was twice nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.
One of Kollinger’s cartoons made the cover of the 2014 edition of “Best Editorial Cartoons of the Year.”
Though his cartoons had appeared in the prestigious collection for 20 years, he said, “It was a thrill to have one on the cover. It’s usually reserved for cartoonists from big city papers,” he said.
“He did have celebrity status,” Foster said. “I can remember at least two or three occasions when, as a solo practitioner, I would have to go out and scour for witnesses to wills. And Rick was usually there, (so) I recruited him to be one of the witnesses.
“My clients were so much more impressed with (Rick’s signature),” Foster said, laughing. “And one guy wasn’t quite sure whether to instruct his heirs … to probate his will or sell it on eBay.”
With his “amazing” talent and “wealth of knowledge,” Kollinger “gave (The Star Democrat) a presence that we didn’t have, and it created a buzz which was so important back in those days,” Effingham said. “People were talking about what his cartoons contained that particular day. And whether you agreed with him or not, I’d like to think that at the end of the story, everybody was a little bit better informed.”Foster remembered attending an exhibition of Kollinger’s cartoons at a Cambridge gallery. He went “for two reasons: I was kind of curious to see what his work would look like, and kind of fearful that I might be in one of them.”Next to each cartoon in which “Rick had skewered somebody … was a framed letter from that person, horribly denouncing him,” Foster said. “And ever since then when I’ve seen people write letters to the editor, I’m thinking, ‘You’re doing exactly what he wants.’ That was just quintessential Kollinger: What other people would take as hurtful or troubling was him a real red badge of courage.”His friends laughed with him, enjoying his witty quips and stories in which he sometimes stretched the truth, while his outraged critics fired off scathing letters to the editor demanding his dismissal.
“Rick brought a lot of humor to our community through his cartoons and columns,” said sports editor Bill Haufe, a longtime colleague. “Not everybody’s going to agree with every one of his viewpoints, but ... just because you don’t agree, doesn’t mean you condemn a person. So maybe people didn’t always understand his humor, but maybe a week or two later they saw something and they chuckled.”
Tracy Kollinger said her husband “may have seemed callous on the outside, but underneath the onion skin he was very sweet and always saw the good in people.”
Kollinger underwent quintuple bypass surgery in 2009 and was diagnosed with lung and throat cancer in 2014. He wrote humorous columns about the vagaries of chemo and radiation and the indignities of medical treatments. In an August 2017 column, he catalogued the names of his local oncology team. “I appreciate their efforts to keep me alive even though I’ve passed my ‘sell by’ date,” he wrote.
He “stopped writing cancer columns because I didn’t want to be known as the cancer guy,” he said.
“It’s a terrible, terrible feeling when they tell you you’ve got cancer,” Kollinger said in 2020. “It’s the worst. It’s worse than ‘some assembly required’ for me — I’m very unhandy.”
“For all of his humor, his jokes and his kidding around, Rick also should be remembered for his courage in the face of decades of health problems,” Riley said. “He was neither a quitter nor a whiner. Last winter, he spent weeks in hospitals in Baltimore and Easton. Rick was able to go back home in Easton, where he spent the last months of his life and still summoned the strength to write an occasional column, or draw one more cartoon.”
“Life is a comedy to those who think and a tragedy for those who feel,” Kollinger often said, quoting Horace Walpole.
“He has defeated death so many times and, when asked about his self-care practices, always said he wanted to slide into home plate sideways. He is finally safe at home plate,” Tracy Kollinger said.
A celebration of life for Rick Kollinger will be held at a later date. Arrangements will be made through Fellows, Helfenbein and Newnam Funeral Home in Easton.
Former Star Democrat and Kent County News reporter Dorian Mitchell contributed to this story.