The Recorder and Times Wednesday, April 3, 1985
Being ‘exposed’ in his sister’s cartoon strip causes no problems for local music teacher
By Dan Black
He teaches instrumental music at Brockville’s Thousand Islands Secondary School and “For Better or For Worse” Alan Ridgway is somewhat of an international celebrity
A seemingly intense man with an eye for excellence and an ear for music appreciation, Ridgway, 35, has – thanks to his artistic sister – something in common with Charlie Brown, Herman and even Dagwood Bumstead.
The article points out he is 35 years old, which tells me something I have wanted to know for a while. I wondered what the age difference was between Alan and Lynn and now I know it is 3 years. That means in 1973 when Alan went to live with Lynn in Hamilton, he was a year out of university.
He is the personality behind Uncle Phil – a cool and lovable cartoon character in Lynn Johnston’s popular comic strip “For Better or For Worse”.
“I find it quite amusing,“ said Ridgway, with a bright smile forming in his heavy brown beard. “Sometimes I have to swallow my pride, but the pleasure I get from Lynn’s strip certainly outweighs any embarrassment.”
What I notice is the first thing quoted about the comic strip from Alan is about loss of pride and embarrassment. That tells us this is a little more of a big deal to him than he is letting on.
The strip, which appears daily in hundreds of newspapers (including the Recorder and Times), is syndicated under Kansas City-based Universal Press.
Today, Johnston, who along with her younger brother was raised in the Vancouver area, earns “a comfortable living” and occasionally hobnobs around the world from her North Bay home with cartoon geniuses Jim “Garfield” Davis and Jim “Herman” Unger.
I like the euphemism he uses for Lynn’s wealth -- “a comfortable living”.
“Her’s is somewhat of a Cinderella story,” notes Ridgway. “She went from a layout artist to an international celebrity. The whole family takes a lot of pride in her.”
This answers another question I had wondered, i.e. “Did Lynn’s family feel as though her wealth was earned through hard work, or given to her as in the way Cinderella became wealthy-- through circumstance, good luck and small feet?” When you think about from her family’s point-of-view, it would be in 1978 and Lynn would say, “Oh. I met a great guy. He’s in dental school and we’re getting married after he graduates and moving to Lynn Lake, Manitoba. He wants to do dental work for First Nations people near his home town.” In 1979, it would be, “The comic strip syndicate signed me to a 20-year contract to make a comic strip. The characters are all going to be like my family.” In 1980, it would be, “I’m a millionaire from my comic strip. I can’t believe it.” I expect Lynn’s family would be astounded at her incredible good luck.
All of the characters in the strip are take-offs of people in Johnston’s life. Their first names are the middle names of family members and friends.
And while Phil is cool and entertaining, Ridgway regards himself as “subtly funny.”
In other words, only a few people get Alan’s jokes.
“She has the uncanny ability to turn every day events into something very humorous and touching,” he said.
Ridgway’s favorite strip is the one where Phil, a jazz musician, asks his nephew, Michael, (who Johnston’s son Aaron in real life) about his trumpet practicing.
Say Phil”: Come on, Mike, how are you going to get anywhere with this thing if you don’t practice?!”
Responds young Michael, “I do practice, Uncle Phil. I practice all the time.”
“Okay…show me something you’ve practiced,” insists Phil – arms folded tightly beneath a jutting chin.
The final frame of the strip shows Michael balancing his trumpet on the end of his left index finger and Phil hiding his frustration in his face behind the palm of his hand.
“I can certainly relate to that strip,” says Ridgway, who teaches music to grades nine through 12 students both at TISS and Brockville Collegiate Institute. “It shows the frustration of being a music teacher and it shows the novelty or the quick-thinking of youth.”
No surprise that Alan likes the musical joke that doesn’t make him look like an idiot.
Beyond the comic page and apart from his sister, Ridgway is better known for his musical talent.
He is a published musician who after receiving his musician union card at age 14 went on from one challenge to another, including seven years with the Stratford Festival Theatre Orchestra.
“I enjoyed Stratford immensely,“ he says, “but I also felt I wasn’t being utilized to my full potential. After a while, I felt like a cog in a wheel and so I decided it was time to move on and look for another challenge.
Translation: Stratford didn’t pay me enough to live on.
Today, Ridgway lives near Kemptville and in the summer is an avid canoeist on the Rideau River. He also has time to compose his own music – music which may someday be used for instruction purposes at TISS and BCI and music which may eventually wind up as the score for a “For Better or For Worse” television cartoon.
I noticed that Alan seemed to be under the impression that his music might “wind up as the score for a ‘For Better or For Worse’ television cartoon.” That didn’t happen. According to Lynn’s other article in the treasury, the guy who ran the animation studio wrote the music. I wonder what sort of promises Lynn was making for Alan to think that.
He lives near Kemptville, but teaches in Brockville which is about 60 km away. Kemptville is pretty close to Ottawa, so I can see his move to Canterbury High School from where he retired, is closer to where he lives. Kemptville, on the other hand, is very close to the Rideau River, so it is highly likely that canoeing was a much bigger part of Phil’s life in 1985 than he talks about in this interview. We know that modern Alan has a side business of making canoes, so he is well into this.
And while his sister’s work may reach new audiences through the television screen, Ridgway maintains TV was never an influence in the Ridgway home.
“We were the last people on the block to have a television set,” he said. “A great deal of our entertainment was in the home and self-generating. She took to art and I took to music. Mom and dad didn’t force us in any direction. They just encouraged us.”
Here, Alan confirms Lynn’s regular assertion about the home television in her growing up years.
While Ridgway has gone from being a professional musician to a high school music teacher and novice canoeist, cool-bearded Phil has failed to make any transformation. But Ridgway believes it may only be a matter of time before Phil the musician becomes Phil the teacher and Phil the canoeist.
“Phil doesn’t have a lot to do with the outdoors – yet,” he added.
He did eventually become Phil the teacher, but we saw no focus on him in that role. Phil the canoeist never appeared.
Ridgway and his sister visit each other about every three months and during these get-togethers they talk about the strip, but don’t go out of their ways to generate ideas.
In other words, Alan is disavowing all knowledge of stories or plots in the comic strip which he and others in his family may find offensive.
Says Ridgway: “The ideas generate themselves. The information and the gags she uses in the strip come from interpersonal relationships she observes in the people around her. Her humor is subtle, but very down-to-earth and meaningful.”
If Alan read the Lynn’s Notes, he might learn that his sister was actually mining her own history and not the people around her.
Still Ridgway says he’s glad Phil doesn’t make it into the strip every day.
“It tends to be an expose,” he adds. “Our foibles are there for the public to see and read about. I really don’t mind – and besides Lynn said if she ever ran out of ideas, she’d just have another child.”
So, April should be considered a sign that Lynn had run out of ideas. Again we have a comment about how Alan doesn’t really like being in the comic strip that much because of the public display of it. That’s twice in this article, so you can tell it really bothered him.
Picture caption says: “Local high school music teacher Alan Ridgway is the man behind the Uncle Phil character in the cartoon in Lynn Johnston’s popular strip “For Better or For Worse.” (Staff photo by Dan Black).
The Recorder and Times Wednesday, April 3, 1985