Only the good die young.
– Billy Joel
Only Rhino Times Cartoonist Geof Brooks could have come up with a comic strip based on Homer’s Iliad about beavers that had escaped from the North Carolina Zoo.
I mean, who does that? What kind of mind connects the Iliad with escaped zoo beavers? How do you even think of something like that?
Over the last few months, Geof Brooks had been working hard on that comic strip but, at just after 11 o’clock on Tuesday night, Feb. 7, I got a conference call from a coworker and a former coworker informing me that Geof – an integral part of the Rhino Times family – had died. I found out later that there had been no warning signs: Geof’s heart had stopped beating suddenly and out of the blue.
That was a week ago and it still feels very strange because, even though all of us at the Rhino know in our heads that Geof is gone, we still don’t know it. We don’t feel it. It doesn’t make any sense and it’s extremely hard for us to accept. Even now, I’ll be writing something and think to myself, Geof will have a field day drawing a cartoon for this story when he reads it. The other night, I got out my phone to text Geof, and it was only when I pulled up his name on the screen that I remembered there was no point in sending it.
The Guilford County commissioners and county staff, the people I cover, absolutely loved Geof’s cartoons. Recently, Chairman of the Board of Commissioners Jeff Phillips held up a Rhino Times at the start of a commissioners meeting and Jeff talked about the cartoon for quite a while, joking about it, before starting the meeting. For many people in county government, every Thursday when they picked up the Rhino, the first page they turned to was the last page.
On Thursday, Feb. 9, the Guilford County Board of Commissioners met for the first day of a two-day retreat and, at the start of that meeting, Commissioner Alan Perdue announced to the room of commissioners and county staff that Geof had died. It was clear from their reaction that they couldn’t believe it any more than the Rhino staff could when we heard the news of his death.
The people I cover absolutely loved Geof and his cartoons even when they were the targets of the cartoon. Or maybe I should say especially when they were the target. I know that’s true of City of Greensboro officials too, because I just came from Geof’s funeral service and Rhino Times Editor John Hammer spoke eloquently on Geof and he made this same point: Everyone enjoyed being the object of Geof’s humor. As you know, Oscar Wilde once said the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about – and apparently that goes for being made fun of in cartoons as well.
One time, Geof drew a cartoon lambasting former Guilford County Manager David McNeill for something – based on a story I’d written – and I was dreading seeing David that day, the same day the Rhino came out. But I had a county meeting I had to go to and David walked over to me carrying a copy of that day’s Rhino Times. He opened up the paper and pointed to the cartoon.
I was thinking, “Oh no, here it comes …”
The county manager put his finger on the drawing of himself and said, “Tell Geof my ass isn’t that big.”
Here was this biting satire of David’s action on every street corner deriding him publicly for some decision that was probably costing taxpayers millions, and the thing he was focused on was that his butt looked bigger than it did in real life.
Another time, someone who had been on the receiving end of Geof’s cartoon came over and he had just read the Rhino. That was another time I thought, “Oh no, here it comes …”
And then he said, “Can I get a signed copy of that cartoon?”
In my 15 years here, people have asked for a signed copy of the cartoon many times, and I would always think: You want a copy of that cartoon? Don’t you get the joke? It’s an absolutely blistering public indictment of you. But, instead of saying what I thought, I would just smile and say, “Sure,” and, per their request, we would print out a nice copy of the cartoon on acid-free paper and Geof would sign it and the person would have it framed and keep it proudly on display.
People found it an honor to be the subject of Geof’s cartoon even if the entire county was getting the laugh at their expense. His humor was sometimes subtle, sometimes blatant, but it was never cruel.
In person, Geof was so much fun to be around that I would always hate it when he came by the office on Tuesdays or Wednesdays because we were trying to get the paper finished. You would promise yourself that you were only going to talk to him for five minutes because you had work to do and then you’d look at your watch and it would be an hour and a half later.
On Wednesdays, Geof would sometimes draw his cartoon while watching the latest Meet the Press on the computer, or sometimes he would listen to sports talk radio. Geof loved the stand-up comedy of Bill Burr and he also loved NC State basketball. He could talk forever about the latest Hardcore History podcast; he found it so fascinating that I started listening to it myself. I have rarely met anyone with interests so broad: Geof’s areas of interest extended from – well, from the works of Homer to beavers.
Geof was such an unusually good person. One time a friend of mine was having a birthday and I was making a mock Rhino Times – with a cover and some inside pages that were all about the birthday girl and I asked Geof it he would mind whipping off a quick cartoon for me to put in this fake Rhino for my friend. What I meant was, did he have five minutes to doodle some quick small black and white cartoon. But he sat at the desk for over an hour and drew this great, brilliant half-page full-color cartoon for me.
A while back, Geof and I went together to see Paul McCartney and we had a great time. After the concert, I dropped him off at his car at the Rhino Times and, even though it was late, we sat in the parking lot and talked for a long time.
He was over 50 and he said he was frustrated he hadn’t already done more to have a nationally known comic strip. I told him that would happen because he was immensely talented and he still had plenty of time. I told him that, these days, 50 was very young. I pointed out to him that Colonel Sanders was 65 when he started his Kentucky Fried Chicken business.
Geof had a good life with his wife and kids, running youth baseball leagues and drawing his cartoons, but make no mistake about it, at 52, Geof was still a man full of big dreams. He was a humble guy but he knew how incredibly talented he was and, if he hadn’t died so young last week, he would have made it big. I promise you that. His beavers – and the other works he had up his sleeve – would have been nationally known if he’d just had a little more time on this earth.
Geof was very excited about his new comic strip and was finally dedicating himself to drawing it and getting it out there. The last time we talked he was trying to figure out the best way to market it. He sent me some panels from the comic strip when he got stumped on punch lines and I helped him out as best I could.
A few weeks before he died, he came by the office and proudly showed us all the first panels of his new comic strip, based on the Iliad, featuring escaped zoo beavers. He was going to call it “Those Dam Beavers,” which in my mind was a perfect name for the strip. He was worried that, since it would be read by school kids, the name was a little too much. But I was getting ready to tell him that was such a great name for the strip that I was going to make him use it when he published the comic strip.
That strip was great and one of the 10,000 things I hate about Geof’s passing is that I will never know how it ends. None of us will ever know what happens with those dam beavers.
I am not worried about my friend Geof Brooks. I think people that funny and charming, who make the world a more enjoyable place with their humor the way he did, get waived right to the front of the line when it comes to entering heaven. He taught me a lot in life and he is still teaching me in death. For instance, I have learned that death does indeed comes like a thief in the night and that, if there’s something you want to do with your life, now would be the time to do it.
God bless Geof Brooks; may be rest in peace.