Former Daily Cal cartoonist shares experiences from the sixties

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John Jekabson/Courtesy

The Free Speech Movement is anything but a relic of the past. At 3 p.m. at Cafe Milano, I met delightful yet astute John Jekabson, graduate of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism Class of 1966, cartoonist for the Daily Cal and former managing editor of the Berkeley Barb. Kindly and humbly, John sat with the Daily Cal to recall his life as a student in the ’60s. With pages he edited himself as well as his newspaper along the walls, in no less than 60 minutes, he revealed himself with a lax tone and quiet demeanor both as a strong leader and a vulnerable and genuine fountain of information and inspiration.

Self-described as white-haired with horn-rimmed glasses, Jekabson is anything but just a retired comic and graphic artist. Jekabson not only impacted the campus community during his tenure as a student, but also used his artistic and journalistic talents to report and review the Free Speech Movement through his own signature lens.

As as self-proclaimed “naturalized american,” Jekabson, who at 4 years old lived in a displaced persons camp in post-World War II Germany, arrived in Berkeley in 1964 empowered to affect positive change. Living with his grandmother “down telegraph in Oakland,” Jekabson recollects paying $90 per semester, eating lunch and enjoying the ruchas on Sproul Plaza at noon, only to scurry off to Emeryville for his 1 p.m. factory job.

 

The Daily Californian: Why did you come to UC Berkeley?

Jekabson: It wasn’t actually what I planned. I was going to be a diplomat. I was going to go to Georgetown. … But I couldn’t get into Georgetown. And, of course, I grew up right here in Vallejo. My grandma lived down Telegraph in Oakland, and it was only 90 bucks a semester. It was free. So I could live at my grandma’s and go for 90 bucks, and it was a good school. When I started doing cartoons because I really liked it and people liked them, I would cut them out and send them to my parents.

DC: What was your daily life like as a student?

Jekabson: Some days I would have one class, and others I would do research. Some days, I could not go to class. I worked in Emeryville, a labor, packing house. We packed cards to send somewhere. All the people that worked there (at the factory) hated the students because they were always demonstrating and picketing. They thought that they (the students) shouldn’t do that because they could have been in school. They would say “These guys (the students) have everything, why are they protesting?” They were basically jealous. At first I tried to argue with them, but it wasn’t worth it.

DC: After you worked for the humor magazine in college, then what did you do art at UC Berkeley?

Jekabson: When I came to Cal, I thought I would do the same thing here, cartoons. They used to have the magazine, the Pelican. I thought that I could do the same thing for the Pelican that I had done for the magazine at Occidental College. So I submitted some things to them, but they didn’t seem interested — I never heard back. You had to know somebody or something. Then I looked at the Daily Cal and showed them my cartoons. They said, “Sure, we’ll publish those.”

John Jekabson / Courtesy

DC: Is there a place in Berkeley that is the most inspiring to you?

Jekabson: Sproul Plaza, of course. Every (day at) noon there was a rally. It wasn’t always about Free Speech. You had to put in your name ahead of time. There was always something. I used to also work half-time job. My job started at 1 o’clock. I always had lunch at Sproul Plaza, and I would always sit across the street so I could leave before 1 o’clock and drive to Emeryville. I could never hear the end of the speeches. But I could always hear the start. All these things with the FSM, I was there for all of them. A lot of things that happened. 

DC: How did you start working for the Berkeley Barb?

Jekabson: The Barb was in more places than the Daily Cal. I saw this guy selling a paper in the street, and I thought that he could use my cartoons so his office was down Telegraph by Ashby, so I walked over there and I gave him some samples. And he said, “My paper is just a weekly, so I can’t use all of these clips.” But then he says, “Can you write?” and I said, “Yeah, I could write.” And he said, “I need some writers, can you help me? I need some help. This guy (another writer) is trying to write about these united farm workers and he needs help.” So I start calling up the numbers (to get information) and sit there and phone them and type them up.

The first day I came there (to the Barb), I didn’t leave there until 2 a.m. He was an older guy — his wife, she was in the kitchen cooking late. And then he said, “I need someone to help me lay it out.” And I said I could do that. And that was a lot of fun because you can be in charge (of) who has the front page, who has the lead story. I got to practice what I was learning in school, and I could see what I was learning in school, and then a couple of days later, I could sell it. Of course, he didn’t have any money, so he said, “The way I’ll pay you is that I’ll give you free copies, and you can keep the money you sell from them.” So we would print about 3,000 copies. This was right after the Free Speech Movement, so there was all of this anti-war stuff going on. 

DC: Why was the Barb founded ? What was its philosophy?

Jekabson: It was the counter of the mainstream press. Today, it seems like the whole student body supported the Free Speech movement, but back then, it was not true at all. It seemed like everybody hated it outside of the campus. The paper Max put out was a counterpaper. It was a counter-culture paper that wouldn’t have existed without his idea. Max’s idea was not just to have politics but also to have humor. He had like an off-beat sense of humor and kind of like MAD Magazine. And also, he knew that that the best way to sell things was through sex and sexy stuff and humor and politics. Basically he combined MAD Magazine, Playboy and a political paper all in one so it would be different. 

DC: What do you think the Barb’s impact was on UC Berkeley’s community?

Jekabson: It wasn’t that much at first because Cal had the Daily Cal. But it was very important the following year. I left in 1966 to go to the Peace Corps. I finished college in 1966, and Max gave me the option to say and pay me to be his editor because he got some money from his family to expand it (the paper). This was to expand it.

DC: What did you learn from the FSM?

Jekabson: It told me that I should stand up for what I believe in and what students say is very important. For some people, the fact that some students could protest on one side of the street and not on the other didn’t matter. But after talking to people who experienced such persecution throughout my work, for example, interviewing Holocaust survivors in postwar Germany, it puts everything into perspective.

Often, we see the Free Speech movement as if it was a honey jar … shoved in the back of the pantry until we need it. We never need to bring it out, and we never appreciate that it came from bees. So, too, we as Berkeley students often shove the FSM to the back of the cupboard.  We pull it out as a signature of Berkeley’s history and greatness. However, in reality, it was a time of struggle and discord within the community, highlighted by the Latvian, German, English and Spanish-speaking artist, and fellow Bear. The Free Speech Movement affected more than just Berkeley students; it changed the lives of Alameda county blue collar workers, Berkeley city residents, students and faculty. And as history would show, the FSM changed the country.

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