Jack Kent (1920-1985) was a cartoonist, children’s book author and illustrator, and longtime King William resident. Born John Zurawski to first-generation Polish and Austrian parents in Iowa, he became Jack Kent when his dad, a traveling linoleum salesman, relocated to Texas in 1926 and changed his name to something his customers could more easily remember. From that day forward my father was a Texan and, except for a honeymoon in Mexico and some tedious business in the Pacific during WWII, never lived anywhere else.
By his mid-teens he was “Texas Jack” and already sure of his calling. He wrote fan letters to all the great cartoonists of the day—his most treasured correspondent was George Herriman, creator of the strange and wonderful Krazy Kat. But he was more than a fan. It was the Depression, and Daddy’s career started early. His formal schooling ended at 15 as he worked as a printer’s apprentice and sold caricatures to the San Antonio Light.
He was self-taught in art and everything else. For a high-school dropout in a rural state, he was extraordinarily well-read and aware of the wider world. He loved opera. His work for The Light was inspired by Miguel Covarrubias, the Mexican artist, anthropologist and New Yorker cartoonist. His artistic taste went far beyond the comics page to Picasso and Miró, Ben Shahn and Paul Klee. He spent his spare time (and his spare change) at the two temples of the literary life in 1930s- 40s San Antonio: Rosengren’s Books and Norman Brock’s used bookstore.
He came to King William when it was full of faded mansions that were rented by the room. In exchange for rent, Granny managed the Maurer Apartments on Beauregard, a gig that lasted through his very long tour of duty in the Army. (Daddy volunteered the week after Pearl Harbor and kept himself on the front lines to the bitter end.) While he was away Grandpa took his new grandson— Daddy’s nephew Kent—up the river to chase turtles and skip stones, and noticed a vacant riverfront lot on Johnson Street. The owner wanted to open a trailer park but Zoning wouldn’t agree. Daddy ended up blowing his discharge bonus on a bit of lush green pecan bottom.
In 1950 Daddy sold his comic strip King Aroo to a national syndicate and became, in his words, “world famous for blocks around.” A strip that shared with Krazy Kat a devotion to the erudite, convoluted, and surreal, King Aroo recorded the life of the Kingdom of Myopia, which packed a vaguely human king and royal retainer and any number of other animals into acreage not much larger than the Johnson Street lot. With block-wide fame came the first serious income of Daddy’s life, which soon financed a baby grand piano (used, from Alamo Music), a Lincoln Capri convertible, and a castle of his own on the banks of his beloved river. He designed it himself as a Modernist homage to the Mexican hacienda, reimagined in concrete block and industrial metal windows, and sporting concrete stairways copied from an adobe original in the Spanish Governor’s Palace.
His fame also brought an interview by San Antonio Express reporter June Kilstofte, who married him not long after. We lived for a few years in the remote northern suburbs (off Basse Road!) but soon returned to the Johnson Street house.
By 1965 King Aroo’s tour of duty had come to an end. Daddy tried any number of other things—panel cartoons for the New Yorker and Playboy, Hallmark cards, a meditation on sex education for Mad Magazine—but hit pay dirt when he sold his first children’s book, Just Only John, in 1967. He would go on to write and/or illustrate more than 60 books, all spun off a cramped drawing board and cluttered desk in a corner of his living room.
The flamboyant Texas Jack of the 1930s became a much more retiring soul in his later years. Neighbor, poet, and eventual friend Naomi Shihab Nye has described her gently persistent labor to get him to submit his work to literary competitions (which, to his astonishment, he won)—or to talk to her at all. My parents were early members of the King William Association—and avoided meetings whenever they could. He was an active member of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, faithfully present from prelude to postlude but absent for coffee (although, very late in his life, he was somehow persuaded to serve on the vestry, which must have felt close to martyrdom for him). He treasured, as many of us in King William still do, the gift of living in the heart of great city yet snug in the green hush of ancient trees and weathered masonry. He preferred to live and work in the company of family, dogs, and wildlife, snug behind ivy-covered fences and loquat hedge, for the rest of his gentle days.
Jack Kent Jr.