Do you want to put creativity, as well as fun, into your business? Hire a gag cartoonist, 'cause nobody thinks like those comedic pencil pushers. That schnozzle, that lantern jaw (and that cool hot rod, too) may be material for their next cartoon character. Robert Petersen got all of the above and more when he hired 28-year-old Tom Medley in 1948 to add a little humor to his new mag about hot rods. Little did Mr. Petersen know his employee would become a much-beloved legend.
Tom, former publisher of Rod & Custom, recently turned 90 years young. I underscore "young" because I don't know many in his age bracket who own, let alone work on, their '40 Ford, campaign a go-kart, or high-tail it to Alaska to go fishing every year.
Tom's First Gig
"The Army had me fill out a form to see what I was good for. They listed me as a cartoonist and a mechanic. They sent me to Omaha to Motor Mechanic school; I was supposed to fight the war with wrenches," Tom laughs. (He laughs a lot.)
Allowed to go into town to a YMCA dance, Tom rode in on a deuce and a half (2 1/2-ton Army truck), got off, and walked back to a bar close by to have a beer (or two) instead of going to the dance. Tom was sitting on a curb waiting for the Army truck to pick up the soldiers when the dance let out.
"All of a sudden all these girls were walking by me so close I could touch them. My wife-to-be, Rosemary, walked by and I saw a good lookin' set of legs. I reached up and grabbed her by the skirt and said, 'Can you dance?' I got up and started dancing with her right under the street light. Best move I ever made." That chance-dance would lead to a love affair that lasted until Rosemary's death.
"I always wanted to be a sports cartoonist," Tom says (like New York Daily News' Bruce Stark or Tom's hero, award-winning New York World-Telegram's Willard Mullin. Tom has one of Mullin's baseball cartoons framed in his home). "I was a gym rat," laughs Tom. "I spent all my time in the gym. I used to sneak into every gym in town till I got thrown out.
"Because I was interested in gag cartoons, I started sending Rosemary letters and I'd put my cartoons on them. The Army started a newspaper. The guy who was the editor was also the sports editor for the Cincinnati Post and found out I did sports cartoons."
After the war ended, Tom was assigned to the Stars and Stripes newspaper in Paris, France, until he was discharged from the Army in 1946. Then it was back home to Oregon (Tom had already married Rosemary), when he got a call from the Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles (before they moved to Pasadena) to say he had been accepted.
Tom had sent cartoons that he did while in the Army to the school for consideration. He received the news on a Thursday but had to be in L.A. that Monday morning to sign in. He kicked it in high gear and headed there in his '36 Ford roadster. "I was taking advertising and design. The gal who ran my class said every ad layout I did had a cartoon on it. Well ... you betcha! I was there less than a year when I got the nod from Petersen."
Providence was in Tom's corner when he stuck his cartoon on the wall at Blair's Speed Shop in Pasadena, California. It just so happened that Mr. Petersen, there to sell Don Blair an ad, spotted it.
"When Petersen called me he said, 'I like your stuff,'" Tom says. "How'd you like to go to work for Hot Rod magazine? I said, 'hell yes.' But Pete didn't even know I was a photographer. We had a lot of fun in those early days; I wouldn't trade it for anything."
Tom told his instructors he was leaving to work at a magazine. "What kind of magazine?" "A hot rod magazine," he replied. "What's a hot rod?" When Tom finished his description he was told summarily, he was making a big mistake. Yeah, right! Tom grabbed a fist-full of No. 2 pencils and began a journey that even Stroker couldn't conjure up.
Turn Me Loose
The staff at Hot Rod became known for the parties they threw. One Thanksgiving party, the staff members' wives and girlfriends thought they were getting frozen turkeys if they came up on stage. Tom was the emcee and always the instigator. It was the ladies who became frozen when they realized the turkeys were live!
At another party, Editor Wally Parks was asked by Tom to sit in a rocking chair that was rigged to look like a roadster he'd done. It was powered by a hamster in a treadmill. Tom's last touch was a slightly modified aircraft seat belt. Parks didn't know the belt couldn't be unlocked and therefore spent the entire party in the chair. Every time he rocked back a Model T bulb horn attached to the rocker would sound. He was left in the chair for the entire party. It's a good bet that Tom was nowhere to be found when Parks was released.
Educated Hot Rods
Where have all the hot rods gone? Why, to school, silly! Looking for fresh material for the magazine, Parks would grab Tom and the two would head out in Parks' '29 Ford roadster tooling all over town to every high school and junior college to scour the parking lots for hot rods.
"We'd see a cool rod and wait for the guy to come out of school and we'd have a car shoot right there and get it in the magazine. They said there weren't any hot rods on the street, but that's because they were all at school. On one occasion a whole football team stood around a guy's hot rod."
Tom wore other hats at Hot Rod besides Stroker, including becoming the ad manager: "I'd go out and hustle up some deals to guys like Vic Edelbrock. I'd show up in my '29 coupe and if Edelbrock was underneath a car, I'd grab a creeper and slide under it too to see what the hell he was doing. I'd shoot some pictures of his Flatheads; do a little caption on it, and get it in the magazine."
Tom hand-printed his work, even though he knew how to type. "There were some damn good typists at Hot Rod, one gal in particular who the guys liked to go to. She was fast and accurate. There was one guy at Motor Trend, they would send everything through him and he'd check for grammar and spelling."
Rosemary wasn't just a great dancer, but a whirl behind a keyboard as well. She did the entire catalog for Dean Moon (Moon Equipment Company) while Tom did the artwork.
Just when the magazine was starting to grow, disaster struck: "We came to work one morning and the safe with a load of subscriptions that guys had written in for with money was stolen from the office. We didn't dare put something in the magazine about what happened because then everyone would say their subscription got lost. They later found the safe behind the big Hollywood sign; of course the money was long gone."
Tom began creating cartoon characters while in the military: "That's when I started doing 'Fearless Freddy Flash', an infantryman in the Army." Once at Hot Rod, Tom introduced a rodder simply as McGurk, but when the curtain rose in the third issue a full-blown Stroker McGurk with his now-famous Gatsby cap hit center stage.
Tom's cartoon character showed hot rodders, not much younger than Tom, how to solve problems by using their heads. "Stroker," began Tom, "did all the things that hot rodders did and got tangled up in. He always looked for a simple solution. Stroker never said anything. It was always pantomime. Pantomime was harder to do, it would have been easier to make a caption and throw it in there."
Tom resembled a silent movie at Petersen Publishing; he moved so fast from assignment to assignment: "I was shooting photos for three magazines at one time, plus the Stroker cartoons and artwork for some of the advertisers ... I was always gone on weekends.
For sure, every year during the month of May, Tom was gone at least four weekends, plus travel time to Indianapolis. Hot Rod was still a fledgling mag in 1950 when Tom was given the assignment to cover the Indy 500, so hopping on a Douglas DC-3 to fly to the Brickyard was out of the question. It was crank up the trusty '41 Ford and head it to the sound of the screaming Offys: "I went back all by myself in the rain that first year. I'd never been there before so when I got there I had to get credentials." Tom was asked what newspaper he was with. He answered: "Hot Rod." "What the hell is Hot Rod?" they replied? He was given a bronze pass. "Hell, I couldn't even get to the latrine with it.
"Hot Rod was a mechanical magazine, so we didn't care about covering qualifying, we were hot rodders. We did stories about the cars that were being built in our backyard in California that were there. We were interested in the engines and chassis."
It was old home month for Tom as so many of the drivers were friends of his, being regulars at Gilmore Stadium and Carroll Speedway in California: Walt Faulkner, Sam Hanks, Jack McGrath, Johnnie Parsons, Jim Rathmann, and Troy Ruttman. Many gained valuable racing experience by driving Model T track roadsters on both the dry lakes and dirt tracks of Southern California before graduating to the Championship Cars.
Jack McGrath (from the track roadster and dry lakes ranks) was about to enter the track for practice and spotted Tom. "Jack handed me his silver pass and said, 'Get out there, it will get you anywhere on the track.' For 16 years, I'd go to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the whole month of May. It was all work; I never sat down the whole time. Rosemary never complained."
Got ... Malted?
Tom rented a room in a stately old three-story home ("from an older couple named Manifold," laughs Tom) several blocks from the Speedway for $12 a week. "They only had one bathroom and it was on the top floor. One morning I got up and ran like hell to the WC and who got there before me? Billy Vukovich, who was staying there too."
Indy wouldn't be Indy without that traditional winner's gulp of cold milk (dating back to 1936 when winner Louis Meyer drank cold buttermilk when his mom told him it would refresh him) ... but a malted? In 1953, Vukovich won what became known as the "Hottest 500" with track temperatures hovering at 130 degrees. (Carl Scarborough died of heat exhaustion after retiring from the race.) Several hours after the race ended, Tom and Don Francisco (the late-tech editor of Hot Rod) hot-footed it out of the speedway and found some shade under the trees of nearby homes, stretching out on the grass to cool off.
"There was an old-fashioned drug store nearby, with a soda fountain, so we went in there and who's having malt? Vukovich who had just won Indy!" Tom looked at 'Vukie' and said, "What the hell are you doing here, you should be back at the speedway playing hero? 'For the last hundred miles,' Vukovich says, 'all I could think about was this malted. As far as hero, I'll do that Wednesday night when they give me the check.'"
Most of the magazine publications that began, or were around, in 1948, are long gone and there is a reason: The pioneering staff Mr. Petersen assembled was the best of the best in Ray Brock, Don Francisco, Tom Medley, Wally Parks, and Eric Rickman. Tom's "what made it run" curiosity transcended his job description when he crawled under that car, which one of the best mechanical minds in hot rodding, Vic Edelbrock was working on. In turn, Stroker passed on that knowledge, through humor, to his multitude of fans. Bud Bryan recalled that the great thing about R&C Publisher Medley was that Tom would share an idea with you, a concept about a story or a feature, but he would never tell you what to do or how to do it.
Jane Barrett, research editor for Road&Track magazine worked with Tom at Petersen Publishing from 1978 until he left the company. Barrett had this to say about Medley: "Tom and Rosemary were great dancers in their younger years, winning all sorts of contests. They spent many, many hours on the dance floor ... jitterbugging hours, not waltzing hours." Spencer Murray, founding editor of R&C, remembers when, "Fred Waingrow handled the day-to-day operations under Mr. Petersen, he was very stern, cold, demanding, and kinda feared. He had an office on the top floor next to Pete's office. That was the inner sanctum. If you ever got called up there, it was bad news.
"He called me and Tom, who was the publisher of R&C at the time, up to his office which was very spartan, but it had bright green carpet. Waingrow was sitting at the far end of the room at his desk. We knew he was looking for a secretary when he called us up there. Tom said, 'You don't need a secretary, you need a gardener.' Waingrow broke out laughing."
Tom became the scatter shield between management ("suits" as he called them) and his extremely talented staff, Gray Baskerville, Bud Bryan, Jim Jacobs, and Tex Smith. They were scribes, with skinned knuckles, whom any publisher would die for. When Tom, or the boys, got a harebrained idea, Tom ran with it and worried about repercussions from upstairs later. Tom hit on having "special issues" like the Nov. '73 "Chopped Top" issue. Why not get a '70s-looking Stroker to chop the letters ROD on the cover to roD (he was about to chop the "D") to emphasize what awaited inside? "I thought the suits were going to mess their pants when I got a wild idea to chop and channel the masthead ... you know, make it smaller. I had a little Stroker up there working on it to cut it down. Stroker was never in R&C per se, but I used him that one time." Tom respected the fact Stroker belonged to Hot Rod.
Tom's popularity is not just through his work over the years, it is his approachability. His coworkers noted that Tom was a "laid-back boss" who initiated the conversation with them and with the street rodders at events he attended.
No, not that coupe. Tom is a pretty crack upholster, but he also wanted to fly. Living close to the Burbank and Glendale, California, airports helped to whet his whistle. Tom stopped by the Glendale Flight School in 1960-61 to inquire about lessons. "The upholstery in the planes was pretty shabby," noted Tom to the instructor. "I'll trade you new seats for flying lessons. When they came in for maintenance I'd go over, take the seats out, take them home, and re-upholster them. That's how I got my license."
In the meantime Tom acquired a military '49 ERCO Ercoupe for $1,500, which was the safest, fixed-wing aircraft at the time. Before Tom flew the single-engine plane he took the wings off and snuck it in his backyard to restore it. He probably didn't have to sneak it in because the neighbors knew that having a cartoonist on the block, there was no tellin' what he'd drag home next. They'd seen it all from go-karts to hot rods and slot cars (oh yeah, Tom built a slot car track in his backyard for his son, Gary, and the kids on the block). So of course he'd have an airplane in his backyard.
Turn Out the Lights
Jack Chisenhall, president of Vintage Air, was stationed in Biloxi, Mississippi, in the Air Force at the time he attended the 2nd Rod & Custom Street Rod Nationals in Memphis in 1971. "Tom stood up on the stage and told all of us that Petersen Publishing had decided they were not going to publish R&C anymore. I walked up later and shook Tom's hand to thank him for telling us the real story. I saw tears from some of the people in the audience; it was a heavy deal. I've been a big fan of his ever since." Tom was as much in shock as the enthusiastic street rodders who attended the event when he broke the news. Tom only found out about R&C's fate shortly before he made the announcement.
"One of the street rod guys in the audience," continues Tom, "spotted one of the suits that went back with us and had him up against the wall and was going to smash him, he was so mad." The suits? Oh, they're long gone. Looking back, it was a little late for management to see firsthand the effect the first two Rod & Custom Street Rod Nationals (and R&C in general) had on street rodders, since the damage had already been done to scupper the magazine and the event. The next year it became the National Street Rod Association's event. Petersen Publishing was no longer involved. Maybe that's the problem today; too many suits! As an artist, a photographer, a salesman, or as a writer, Tom brought to Petersen Publishing an enthusiasm for his job that never ebbed till the day he left the building for good.
May I call Tom Medley "Smedley" for just a moment? A respected automotive journalist, who worked with Tom, made a rare slip of the keyboard when replying to my email. Medley became Smedley. But was it a slip? Medley ... Stroker, so why not Smedley? Sure, there's no doubt that Tom could have become a celebrated newspaper sports cartoonist. We tend to squirrel away our old Hot Rod and R&C magazines, we know where newspapers end up. Besides Tom didn't hang out at some sports bar, he hung out at Blair's. We got him instead.
A shindig took place recently at the Wally Parks NHRA Museum in Pomona for Tom. Guys and gals who worked for, sat next to, secretaried for, wrote for, sold for, sold to, raced with (get the picture?) and stood by Tom Medley gathered together. We spent a ruckus day with nary a dry eye in the house.