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Life Support: A lesson from 'Dennis'

Children grow up, and parents don't get second chances

Monday, June 11, 2001

By Sharon Randall

He gave us one of the best-loved children the world has ever known. But in reality, by his own admission, he missed the chance to make that child feel loved.

This March 14, 1983 photo captures Hank Ketcham with one of his sons, Scott, then 6, and his cartoon creation Dennis the Menace, who always turns 6 on March 14, and then goes back to being 5 on March 15. Post-Gazette library

Like you, perhaps, and millions of other Americans, I grew up with "Dennis the Menace." I liked to think that there was a world where the worst thing that could ever happen to a child was being sent to sit in the corner. I was glad that one of us, at least, could stay "five-ana-half" forever.

My children grew up with "Dennis," too. They loved to read his latest antics out loud to me at breakfast. And we spent hours chasing each other around "Dennis the Menace" Park in Monterey, Calif. -- down the giant slide, over the swinging bridge, in and out of the tunnel and the maze.

So it was with real sadness that I heard the news that cartoonist Hank Ketcham -- Dennis' real dad -- had died of heart failure at his home in Pebble Beach.

The end of any long and productive life should be cause for celebration more than for sorrow, and Ketcham's 81 years on this Earth left his family and friends and fans much to celebrate.

But what is missing in that tribute is the presence of the real Dennis, Ketcham's elder son: The 2-year-old "menace" who inspired the cartoon; the little boy whose mother was addicted to barbiturates and whose father was busy forging a career; the 12-year-old who was sent off to boarding school soon after his mother died; the young soldier who fought in Vietnam; and the now middle-aged man who has chosen to live his life estranged from his famous father.

In Ketcham's obituary, a spokeswoman for the family was quoted as saying that she didn't know where Dennis Ketcham is living.

I met Hank Ketcham in the fall of 1990, when I interviewed him for a feature on the release of his autobiography, "Hank Ketcham: The Merchant of Dennis." He was pleasant, gracious and he answered all my questions, even some I'd been told he would avoid.

When I asked about Dennis, he said, "He checks in about twice a year. And if he needs something, I try to help him."

Then, pausing a moment to rearrange some pencils on his desk, he added: "Sometimes, young fathers scrambling to make a living, to climb the ladder, leave it to the mother to do all the parental things. But you get back what you put into a child. It's like a piano. If you don't give it much attention, you won't get much out of it."

Ketcham had two children from his third marriage and seemed happy to have a second chance to be a dad.

"In my family now," he said, "I'm much more active with the kids and their schooling than I was before. I listen better. And I think I'm more patient. Maybe not. But I'd like to think so."

Famous parents make the same mistakes all the rest of us do. The only difference, of course, is their mistakes tend to be a lot more famous. Ketcham should be remembered for the good that he did and the happiness he brought to the world. But the best thing, perhaps, to remember about him is that, like us, he wasn't perfect. Yet he had the grace to admit it and to learn from his mistakes.

The cartoon that appeared in newspapers on June 2, along with Ketcham's obituary, showed Dennis lying in bed while his mom read a story that ended with "... and they lived happily ever after"; to which Dennis replied, "Except when they had to sit in the corner, right?"

Life is no cartoon. You have to sit in a lot of corners, pay for your mistakes and do the best you can. Take it from Dennis' dad: You get back what you put into a child.

E-mail Sharon Randall at srandall@montereyherald.com.

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