By David Reese/Montana Living
For millions of people around the nation, Rick O’Shay was a consistent morning visitor.
Created by Stan Lynde of Helena, “Rick O’Shay” was the Western comic strip character that ran in newspapers around the nation, reaching 15 million people weekly, until 1977.
Raised in Lodgegrass, Montana, near the Crow Indian reservation and the Custer Battlefield, Lynde grew up a true Montanan. His father ran sheep on the reservation, where Lynde learned early of the native American and cowboy ways.
It was those cowboys who took Lynde under his wing as a boy. “I came to worship those old cowboys,” Lynde, who now lives in a modest, split-level home in Helena, says. “I used to love to listen to their stories. They were pretty kind to a kid.”
It was here that Lynde’s own ethics were formed — ethics that made their way right into his nationally syndicated comic strip.
Those ethics were popular not only with Montana people in post World War II, but they resonated across the national readership as well. His comic strip appeared in the nation’s five largest newspapers and dozens more regional papers.
Lynde was 26 when he began drawing cartoons. In 1951, he attended the University of Montana where, he says, he didn’t fare too well. “I had the choice of leaving voluntarily or being asked to go,” he says now, with a bit of a wry smile beneath his neatly trimmed mustache and wide-brimmed hat.
With college life at UM behind him, he enlisted in the Navy. While in the service, he went to Guam and began writing the “Tyfoon” comic strip for the Navy newspaper five days a week.
After a two-year stint in the Navy, Lynde moved to New York and attended art school at night. During the day he worked as a reporter for the Wall Street Journal. While covering the commodities beat, he’d find himself constantly doodling and drawing.
His “Rick O’Shay” strip was picked up by the New York News syndicate in 1958 and ran for nearly 20 years — one of the longest runs by a single cartoonist in the nation.
Lynde, a Montana cowboy with Christian ideals, assumed the role of the two main characters in the strip: Rick O’Shay, the optimist and idealist, and Hip Shot, the cynical loner. “It was a symbiotic friendship,” Lynde says now. “They formed a friendship through their opposites.”
Back before FedEx and e-mail, Lynde would create a 13-week series for the strip and ship it off. The saga would run in the daily newspapers Monday through Saturday, then would run on Sundays in color.
“It was a little like walking up a down escalator,” Lynde says. “If you took any rest, you fell behind. It was a tough deadline to maintain.Characters for the strip came right out of his own life, like “Chief Horse’s Neck,” a very sly Indian who interacted with O’Shay and Hip Shot. The portrayal of this wise man “pleased the Crow (tribe),” Lynde says. “They loved that.”
Hip Shot was modeled after two people that Lynde cared about: his father, and cowboy friend Bill Mills. Mills carried a gun — and a cat, who appeared in the comic strip as “Belle Star.”
After his contract with Tribune Media, which owned the strip, expired in 1977, Lynde was offered a chance to create a new, similar comic strip called “Latigo.” This ran until 1983, until reader interest faded. “We had a good run with Latigo, but story strips were dying by then, mostly because of television,” Lynde says.
The story strip format of comics are all but dead in newspapers today, Lynde says, other than “Doonesbury” and a few others. “The times have really changed,” he says.
Leaving the strip — and characters that he grew to know — “was a tough time for me,” Lynde says. “But it was a matter of business.”
A fire at his Billings home in 1990 destroyed the remaining originals of the Rick O’Shay prints.
“Latigo” has gone to book form, as has Lynde, who has spent the last 12 years writing Western fiction. He has written seven novels, his most recent being “Vendetta Canyon.”
The novels take a similar Western theme, with a sheriff’s deputy in Montana territory in the 1880s. Like his comic strips, Lynde’s novels are strong on humor and moral message.
The cowboy, a central part of the mythical Western character, is Montana’s folk legend, much like the knights were for England or Ireland. They both represent a higher power; not of only God, but of self. “They represent what the individual can accomplish,” Lynde says. “Perhaps people today feel less power.”
Much of Lynde’s Western humor and morality grew out of his upbringing on Montana’s Crow Indian reservation during the Depression. Lynde is an adopted member of the Crow tribe. “It was a wonderful life,” he reflects. “It was a Norman Rockwell town, like the town of Conniption in Rick O’Shay.”
Lynde’s career has been rich and varied. He still emcees the Western Rendezvous of Art, and continues his novel writing. He’s active in the Helena community. As his character Rick O’Shay might have said, “Most of us live too long to do just one thing in life.”
Though Rick O’Shay, Hip Shot, Latigo and the town of Conniption are faded to memory, perhaps their legacy lives on through the lives of the people who enjoyed Lynde’s comic strip as youths.
“People who read it as young people are passing it on to their kids,” he says. “They haven’t forgotten it.”
On the Web: www.oldmontana.com