In the comic-strip world of Milford High, Gil Thorp coaches three sports, flies his own airplane, hews to the Boy Scout Oath and solves more problems for his athletes than do their parents, teachers and clergymen combined. The locker room is awash with tales of pregnant girl friends, family breakups, gambling, alcoholism and drugs. But nothing fazes Thorp. One year he had a tight end whose teammates harassed him because they thought he was gay. Thorp stoutly defended the boy—"The kid was a hell of a tight end," says one longtime Milford fan—and used the situation to teach his players about open-mindedness and understanding. Another time, Milford's star quarterback stuttered so severely he couldn't call signals; Thorp had his center shout the cadence instead and helped the quarterback overcome his affliction by introducing him to newly developed "airflow" therapy.
Still, Thorp has problems of his own. The only woman he ever loved, poetry teacher Holly Dobbs, ran out on him soon after the two were engaged in 1970. Since then, Thorp's luck with women hasn't improved. He really isn't much of a coach, either: Milford has won just one Valley Conference title in football, two in basketball and one in baseball during his 25 years at the school. "More often than not they lose the big game," says 60-year-old cartoonist Jack Berrill, who knows Thorp and Milford better than anyone else. "Sometimes they're just whipped, sometimes they blow it at the end."
Back in the early 1970s, Thorp had one of the most talented athletes he'd ever coached, a power-hitting outfielder named Joe Sharky. Sharky went from Milford to the minor leagues, where he was a sensation—until his eyesight began to fail. When his batting average plummeted, Sharky became depressed and started drinking heavily. Thorp told him to buy some glasses (Sharky wasn't real bright). However, hardly had the young outfielder acquired spectacles, gone off the booze and found his old hitting stroke, when he caught his hand in a grain-threshing machine—this was one tough farm system—and lost a finger. After the accident Thorp visited Sharky and tried to make a pitcher out of him, but soon saw that his plan wouldn't work. "Thorp isn't perfect, but he isn't a lard-head," says Berrill. No, and even if Steve (Win-Or-Else) Wilcox, Milford High's loathsome booster-club president, thinks otherwise, few others do.
Since Berrill created the Gil Thorp cartoon strip in September 1958, sports fans from New Hampshire to California have adopted Milford as their town (any devotee of the strip knows there's no way Thorp could live in California) and Thorp as their coach. Berrill, who lives in the quiet Danbury, Conn. suburb of Brookfield Center, named his character after Jim Thorpe and Gil Hodges, the latter having been a loyal reader while he was managing the Washington Senators in the mid-1960s. "I used Thorpe for the image of the powerful Indian, the all-around athlete," Berrill says. "I thought Gil Hodges personified the character I wanted."
For 25 years, it seems, Thorp has coached and counseled not only the fictional teams of Milford High but also the youth of America. "They say to leave your messages to Western Union," Berrill says. "I try to entertain, not preach."
Readers of the strip, which appears in 120 newspapers six days a week, are fervent in their loyalty. According to Berrill, when the Chicago Tribune dropped the strip for three days in the mid-1960s, the newspaper's switchboard lit up and the Chicago City Council roundly condemned whoever was responsible. After the Philadelphia Daily News dropped Thorp in October 1981, the outcry was so great that the tabloid apologized and promised to restore the strip. On Nov. 9, under the headline FANS CALL GIL THORP OFF THE BENCH, the Daily News printed the 31 strips its readers had missed.
Berrill grew up in Brooklyn, married his high school sweetheart and fellow Dodger fan. Veronica, and in 1942 broke into comics by taking over the narrative, but not the graphics, of Winnie Winkle. In 1966 he also began writing and drawing Teen-Wise, a weekly strip featuring wholesome advice for adolescents. "The kind of thing a parent would hang on the refrigerator, much to the anguish of the kids," says Berrill. Berrill's Winnie Winkle stint lasted 16 years, Teen-Wise, 10 years. Veronica is a high school English teacher, and both are volunteer family counselors. "Veronica corrects my spelling and tells me what won't wash," Berrill says. "She's right in the middle of the high school scene." Daughter Bonnie, 17, a high school cheerleader and the youngest of six fairly athletic Berrill kids, helps out, too: "I tell him whether 'groovy' is in or not."
When Jack thought up Gil Thorp, the Berrills were living in New Milford, Conn. So much for that mystery. Berrill visited New Milford High and asked a coach what his biggest coaching problem was. The coach pointed into the distance, out past the baseball diamond. "That parking lot," he said grimly. "He meant the cars," says Berrill. "A lot of potentially good players had to get afternoon jobs to pay for them and so couldn't go out for the team. That was the story that sold the strip."
Since then, Berrill has done his best to keep Gil Thorp timely—within the constraints of comic-page morality. Milford students still hang out at The Bucket, a teen hangout where Richie Cunningham and the Fonz would feel right at home. And almost no one curses, either; when Berrill put a *#!!?%*!!! in Thorp's vocabulary several years ago, an elderly woman wrote to say she was terribly disappointed that Thorp would use such disgraceful language. "What did she think he said?" asks Berrill. Right-to-Lifers have sent him letters, too, warning him to stay away from the subject of abortion. On the other hand, he has received much praise from coaching associations and educators. Over the past two decades, while most other strips have been afraid to tackle sensitive social problems, Berrill has done so head on. To help keep up with trends, he listens to radio call-in shows while drawing the strip in his cluttered den each morning. He also watches the Donahue show. "Say what you will about [Donahue] being superficial and running around with a microphone—he's addressing issues," Berrill says.
One of the more controversial things Berrill has done with Thorp is change his haircut. In 1972 he replaced Thorp's crew cut with a 'do of the squarish kind favored by Herman Munster. "One day I just covered his ears, and that was it," says Berrill. Thorp now resembles Dick Clark, who also appears not to have aged a day in the last quarter of a century.
Berrill doesn't consider Gil Thorp a rival of America's only other major sports-related strip, Tank McNamara, the humorous, 10-year-old comic strip drawn by Jeff Millar and Bill Hinds that appears in 235 papers. In contrast to Thorp, Tank is a gag-a-day strip that focuses on professional and big-time college athletics. Also, rarely are there action scenes in Tank. The opposite is the case with Thorp. Berrill devotes a good deal of time to improving his action drawings. The Thorp and Tank strips have addressed many of the same problems, including academic ineligibility and college recruiting excesses. Millar and Hinds eschew high school romance, however, and Berrill ignores Howard Cosell.
Thorp does have to put up with Marty Moon, though, the obnoxious play-byplay man for WMFD radio, whose descriptions serve as narrative for the strip's game sequences. ("...The ball is tipped...it's picked off by #76! That's Tony Monetti! He's going to take it in!") Moon tried to steal Holly Dobbs from Thorp even before Thorp fumbled her away, and he's always pestering Thorp with questions and pelting him with snide remarks. On the other hand. Thorp is no diplomat. And Thorp should understand that Moon works under difficult circumstances. Milford doesn't even have a team nickname for him to toss around in his broadcasts. What's more, Milford rarely plays outside the seven-team Valley Conference, either, so what's Moon's best road trip? Archrival Valley Tech? Oakwood? Tilden?
Berrill calls Moon a "scene changer," which is essentially what Thorp is, too. The stories at Milford aren't really about him but about teen-agers and their numerous growing pains. "It's hard to say goodby to some of the kids," says Berrill wistfully. "You hardly get to know them and they're gone." Berrill had hoped to arrange a reunion of all his old characters in the 25th-anniversary Gil Thorp strip last September, but he had to scrub the idea. "How the heck would I fit them all in?" Berrill says.