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Charley Krebs’ merit award to Morton College offered him a sneak peak of the new campus in the summer of 1975. The Cicero native and award-winning cartoonist was going to be the editor of the Morton College Collegian, so Krebs pounced on the opportunity to check out the newspaper office two weeks before the start of classes.
“First and foremost, it was the newness,” Krebs said. “Most kids coming from Cicero and Berwyn went to grade schools that were old. Morton East was dingy and gray. And here was this brand-new campus that went beyond anyone’s imagination.”
During a nine-year period when Morton College became an independent community college district, classes were held all over the community in churches, storefronts and on the third floor of Morton East High School.
“People of my age going to Morton College were not necessarily looking forward to it because of all the running around you had to do to get from class to class,” Krebs said. “We were incredibly fortunate to be born at the right time and be part of the first full class. What was remarkable was the newness of it.
“I was allowed to come in early and see the newspaper set-up. I remember the smell of the glue on the carpeting and the paint. Everything was shiny new and well-equipped.”
Even Krebs couldn’t fathom the former prairie land on 38th Street and Central Avenue he once played hide-and-seek, caught frogs and floated across on a raft was transformed into this educational emerald isle.
“I don’t think there wasn’t one person from the students to the community on up that didn’t appreciate it,” Krebs recalled. “It was so impressive…so beautiful.”
Krebs recalls being just amazed by the new astronomy and biology laboratories, the classrooms for nursing and dental assisting, the theatre, the gymnasium and the outside courtyard with the step-stair stage. There was a game room complete with pool tables, pinball machines and the forerunner to electronic games. A media center, staffed by talented people, provided access to graphics, music, film and a darkroom.
“People were so respectful of the facility,” Krebs said. “They didn’t want to smudge the staircase because it was so new. It truly was a gift. The community leaders and the Morton College Board worked in concert to get it done, no matter what it took.”
Krebs called the first day of classes on the new campus “an amazing experience for everybody.”
“It was a positive vibe,” Krebs added. “Everybody was happy. There were lots of people checking it out, like it was a new car. Coming from a working-class neighborhood with old schools, this was amazing. It also had to be mind-blowing for the teachers who were going from storefronts to fully-equipped classrooms.”
Dan Walker, the governor of Illinois, came later that year to dedicate the campus.
“It was a big deal when Illinois Governor Dan Walker showed up in a limo,” Krebs said. “The event was open to the neighborhood. People came in wide-eyed and dressed all in their Sunday best. It was a really big day and a very electric atmosphere. There was some controversy going in Illinois and Russ Ewing (former reporter at Channel 5 and 7) being there. I remember Dan Walker just being in and out.”
Behind the curtain, however, all wasn’t utopia at the new Morton College with a potential faculty strike being a hot topic. Krebs and the Collegian weren’t sitting this party out as the 1970s were heady times for aspiring journalists, who had plenty of new role models. The Washington Post’s Woodward and Bernstein wrote about Watergate, which took down a President, and Hunter Thompson’s “gonzo journalism” cast its spell on impressionable young writers.
Krebs recalled having a staff of wonderful writers and talented photographers. He was excited to use the skills he learned in journalism classes at Morton East into practice. Morton College Collegian faculty adviser Lyn Anderson created an atmosphere where Krebs and his staff had free reign.
Krebs put his loves of cartoons and music to work. “Four-Way Street,” the name of a Crosby, Stills and Nash album, headlined a Collegian story that interviewed College President Vincent Guarna, the student representative, the Board chairman and the faculty union president on the faculty issues.
“The potential teachers strike dominated everything,” recalled Krebs, who graduated with his associate’s degree in journalism from Morton College. “You had all conflicting messages, depending on who you talked to. We were dealing with constant labor struggles. I thought we were doing a good job of covering it. We got a lot of response. I got a lot of calls at home – we were under a barrage of people stating their case to us.”
Krebs, taught by a family friend how to draw, learned the power of cartoons at a young age. He was greatly influenced by Bill Mauldin’s editorial cartoon of Abraham Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial with his head in his hands after the John F. Kennedy assassination in 1963.
“Mauldin’s cartoon showed there was more to cartooning than drawing a mouse or a duck,” Krebs said. “It showed me I could combine cartoons and real life.”
During Krebs’ two years at Morton College from 1975 to 1977, his cartoons appeared in a number of different student college publications including the Student Handbook. The newspaper came out weekly and Morton College had a yearbook at the time, so Krebs had a captive audience to express his youthful hubris.
“It was intoxicating in those times,” Krebs admitted. “Everybody felt empowered by the energy of the new campus. It was a very intense energy for good and not so good. I was full of myself and we were very sophomoric.
“It was the activist times of the 1960s and 1970s. We felt it was our time to, quote, ‘Burn down the administration building.’ Although I don’t know what was left in 1975 to actually fight for…we were college students at a good time in history, not to mention that we had a brand-new administration building!
“It was good to be a watchdog, but when our two years were up, we were gone. I think we caused a commotion. I don’t know if it was good or bad? Did it change anything necessarily for the staff and faculty we left behind or for the new students coming in?”
Being responsible for creating a weekly newspaper provided Krebs with some valuable life lessons.
“It was a baptism by fire,” Krebs said, “but no deadline ever intimidated me the rest of my life. I learned more outside of the classroom through the experience of dealing with all the news stories and creating a paper every week. It gave me the skills I took in every job I’ve ever had.”
While Krebs didn’t view cartooning as a serious pursuit, time spent researching career salaries for journalists and graphic artists in the Morton College library proved otherwise. So Krebs dropped journalism and focused on the graphic arts side.
He landed a job out of Morton College as a paste-up artist, then parlayed that into a job as a cartoonist for The LIFE Newspapers where Krebs did five cartoons a week for 30 years. Krebs received 17 state and national cartooning awards, including two state and two national first-prize designations. He’s also been featured in Chicago Jazz Magazine, New City, Copley Newspapers, AOL’s Patch.com among others.
While always cartooning on the side, Krebs spent 14 years as an art director at two international educational travel tour companies.
“The clientele were alumni or membership groups from the very best historical, cultural, military and learning institutions,” Krebs said. “I was often asked about my own educational background and was always proud to say that I came from Cicero and was from Morton College, and that I could hold my own and be respected at that level of business.”
The Riverside resident now is a staff illustrator for a major marketing/business company.
“I never realized how many different and creative applications there are for the art form of cartooning, and I’m grateful for the chance to find out,” Krebs said. “I basically won the job lotto with a dream gig collaborating with brilliant people from all over the world.”
Krebs’ works also been have widely exhibited, including a career retrospective at the Riverside Arts Center and followed by presentations at the Geneva Historic Society, the Aurora Public Arts Commission and many other galleries, theatres, coffeehouses, libraries, festivals and music venues.
“Cartooning does keep you young,” Krebs said. “You need to keep up on things. Your reference points have to be recognizable for readers of all ages. You have to maintain that sense of sarcasm and skepticism that a younger person has to keep the work and subject fresh. You want to keep that kind of edge.”
Krebs thinks back to his Morton College days as a time where he packed a lot of life into 24 months.
“Morton College provided an affordable and solid education,’” Krebs said. “We had a great time and we learned an awful lot. Morton College served me well beyond journalism, marketing and cartooning.”
Charley Krebs died November 10, 2016.