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Ron Tandberg dies: A legend has drawn his last cartoon

His life and 20-year career has been recounted by The Age’s TONY WRIGHT in this touching tribute.

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Long-standing Fairfax Media cartoonist Ron Tandberg passed away on Monday after a short battle with cancer, aged 74. 

Ron Tandberg, whose perfect little “pocket” cartoons have been among the most loved features of The Age for the past 45 years, has died after a short battle with cancer.

Tandberg, who turned 74 on New Year’s Eve, died on Monday, surrounded by members of his family – his wife, Glen, at his side – at the St John of God Hospital in Geelong.

Tandberg joined The Age in 1972, and went on to win an extraordinary 11 Walkley Awards, including two Gold Walkleys.

He was a man who found wry humour in almost everything, including the illness he was diagnosed with on Friday the 13th of October last year.

Among his last works was a series of cartoons depicting his predicament as oesophageal cancer overwhelmed him – a small figure standing helplessly as a giant wave approaches; a little man in polka dot pyjamas holding a hospital IV drip pole turning up at the pearly gates, only to be told by St Peter that “you are not due here till next week”. “I’m cancelling the appointment,” says Tandberg.

Ron Tandberg cartoon

“Sometimes you feel so bad you don’t feel like laughing, but then you find it again,” he confided a few days before Christmas.

“Remember when they sent journalists out of the office to discover what was out there in the bad world? I am a long way out there now.”

Tandberg said that when he was employed in 1972 by Graham Perkin – then The Age‘s editor-in-chief – he was asked to draw a small cartoon, a “pocket cartoon”, to accompany the main story of the day and to tie the front page together.

He believed he was the first cartoonist in Australia to be commissioned for such a task, and he specialised in drawing his subjects with the fewest possible strokes of the pen.

Tandberg previously had been employed as an art teacher at Williamstown High School.

Early in his career he worked in the art department of Leader newspapers in Northcote, where he was eventually sacked for impersonating the general manager. He also spent a period working for an advertising firm in the city, and had created a cartoon series, Fred and Others, that was syndicated in Australia and overseas.

He described joining The Age as his great moment of self-discovery.

“It was as if I’d come home after being a bit lost,” he said.

Tandberg, who also worked for the Herald Sun for a period in the 1990s before returning to The Age, rarely came into the office over the past 20 years. He was in the practice of discussing over the phone the main stories of the day with news editors and other journalists before creating his cartoon.

During such discussions, it was almost possible to hear his considerable mind turning over the details and distilling the circumstances into just a few lines of his artist’s pen. And, of course, a caption. He said he’d learned the value of a short caption from listening to the songs of great songwriters on the wireless in the 1950s.

For journalists, getting such a phone call and knowing Tandberg was preparing a cartoon for their story was as good as getting a story on Page 1.

And always, Ron Tandberg, who had learnt to dislike bullies from personal experience at school, used as his main character a little person looking with astonishment or disdain at the behaviour of the powerful.

“Not only was he a world-class cartoonist, he was a world-class human being,” Age editor Alex Lavelle said on Monday.

“You couldn’t help but feel better about life after a conversation with Ron.

“Even during these impossibly hard few months while he was battling cancer, he maintained his extraordinary sense of humour and was still drawing a few days ago.

“Ron has been a great friend and inspiration to countless members of our staff across five decades. And of course he is adored by our readers. His cartoons expertly captured with simplicity and clarity the essence of life and politics in Melbourne and around the world.”

Tandberg’s last picture was a serene drawing of the pier at Queenscliff, where he lived, featuring happy souls fishing and walking their dogs on the beach.

He leaves his wife, Glen, five children and seven grandchildren.

A book of his work from 2017, A Year of Madness: The Tandberg Collection, is currently being published by Wilkinson Publishing.

Tandberg’s newspaper art is featured in the Ink in the Blood exhibition at the City Gallery, Melbourne Town Hall, until February 17.

 Ron Tandberg cartoonThis article was first published by The Age and has been republished with permission from Fairfax Media.
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