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Rod Gilchrist, Cartoon Art Museum Exec Director, Passes Away

Anyone who believes cartoons are just idle doodlings never met Rod Gilchrist.

For the past 11 years, Gilchrist was cheerleader, town crier and fan No. 1 of the provocative, wacky world of art embodied by SNOOPY, BIZARRO, IRON MAN and every other comic strip or book that made you laugh or shout with excitement.

As executive director of San Francisco's Cartoon Art Museum, he hosted hundreds of book signings and exhibits and ran a program bringing the craft of cartooning to schools. The aim was always the same: to help people realize the real skill cartooning takes, and to understand that in those playful drawings and thought bubbles lie narratives that often tell as much truth as a good short story.

When he died of brain cancer on Feb. 26 at his San Francisco home, the 58-year-old Gilchrist left a gap in the close-knit world of cartoonists and those who love the art. It's a void that will be hard to fill.

"Rod just treated comic art with such dignity and respect," Patrick McDonnell, who draws the MUTTS comic strip, said from his New Jersey home. "Some people express themselves with paint, others with little doodles. Rod appreciated the beauty of what we do."

One of Gilchrist's foremost achievements was keeping the 24-year-old museum -- the only one of its kind in the Western United States -- afloat through the dot-com boom of the late 1990s when rents soared so high that it and other art organizations were priced out. He relocated the museum in 2001 to 655 Mission St., where it thrives today with a world-renowned collection including SPIDER-MAN, PEANUTS and the macabre renderings of Gahan Wilson.

"We owe Rod a lot of thanks," said Jean Schulz, whose late husband, PEANUTS creator Charles M. Schulz, helped found the museum. "Rod kept that museum going with a staff of three, volunteers and wonderful board members, and he put on great shows."

Gilchrist was born in Detroit. After earning a master's of fine arts from the Pratt Institute, N.Y., in 1992, he sold art at the Shapolsky Gallery in New York City and exhibited his own work of paintings on steel. He moved to San Francisco two years later to help his life companion, Maryann Fleming, run the Portola Family Connections center she founded.

Eleven years ago, he took the Cartoon Art Museum job "because he was looking for a place to support himself by doing the arts," said Fleming. A lifelong fan of comics, it turned out to be a great fit.

"He fell in love with the museum, and it went from there," Fleming said.

In addition to Fleming, Gilchrist is survived by two sons, Andrew Gilchrist of Ann Arbor, Mich., and Ryan Gilchrist of Davis; his mother, Margaret Gilchrist of Romeo, Mich.; two sisters and a brother. In lieu of flowers, Gilchrist's family asks that donations be made in his memory to the Cartoon Art Museum or Portola Family Connections.

--Remembrance written by Kevin Fagan, SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE staff writer

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