In Memoriam: Harvey Pekar (1939-2010)

Illya Harrell@illya_1971Analyst IIJuly 12, 2010

Harvey Pekar personified Cleveland.  He oozed Cleveland.  Every word he wrote had a little smell of Cleveland.  And write he did, from the mid-1950s until 2010...seven decades.

Chiefly known for his intelligent comic books, graphic novels, and a 2003 film, American Splendor (named for his slice-of-life comic books).

He began writing boxing articles in 1950s. 

Then moved on to one of the absolute loves of his life, jazz music.  Pekar wrote close to 10,000 jazz reviews.

His comics were about anything and everything Cleveland.

In one, he lamented the helplessness of Cleveland sports fans.  How all Cleveland teams teased and taunted their fans, over-and-over again.  Coming so close to championships, only to get bit in the end.

This article has a personal meaning to me.

In 1995, I was diagnosed with brain cancer.  In the winter of 1996, while going through massive amounts of chemotherapy, a dear friend of mine brought me a book entitled Our Cancer Year

Pekar had gone through cancer as well.

It was a 10-chapter, about 200-page comic book.  Having never read comic books in my life, I looked at my friend and said, "It's a [expletive] comic book?!?"

"Just read it."

I did.  And it was one of the many things that helped me kill the tumor.

Ten years later, in the spring of 2006, I was working on the administrative floor of the main branch library in Huntington, West Virginia. 

I absolutely despised almost everyone in my department.


The library was getting ready for it's bi-annual book festival.  I begged, pleaded, kissed feet—anything to get the brass to send Harvey Pekar an invite.

They did.  And he accepted.

To top things off, I was appointed his personal liaison for the weekend.

That Friday, I met him at the airport, and showed him to his hotel.  We chit-chatted a bit, went our separate ways, and met back for a pre-festival dinner, then parted ways again.

On Saturday, I was supposed to get Harvey to the book festival as early as possible—he was the most expensive speaker.

That morning I called and asked if he was ready.  In his distinctive, raspy voice he mundanely said, "Yeah, I guess."

I rushed over at about 11:30 fully expecting him to be ready to go.

Instead he was lying on the bed in sweat pants and a t-shirt watching the first round of the NFL Draft. 

He asked me, "Can we at least stay and see who the Browns take?"

"Sure, what do they need this year?"

He said, "A defensive end."

They got their defensive end.

So I'm thinking to myself, would it be cooler to hob-knob with a bunch of dorks or sit in Harvey Pekar's hotel room and watch as much of the draft as possible.

I opted for the latter.

I said, "Hey, the Skins have an early second rounder.  Wanna try to make it that far?"

"I don't want to get you in trouble, Illya, but I'd rather stay and watch the whole damn thing than have to walk around shaking hands with people."

We had to leave before the Skins pick. 

But sitting in that hotel room, talking to one of my all-time favorite writers, and watching the draft may very well be the best decision I have ever made.

We walked into the conference area 15-minutes before he was set to speak...about four hours late.

The attendance for Harvey's lecture tripled any of the other writers. 

I didn't get in trouble.

Rest in peace, Harvey, knowing you gave one guy his most memorable NFL Draft experience ever.


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