Gridlock Guy: Luckovich explains his famous Captain Herb Emory cartoon

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Captain Herb Emory remembered

One image of the memory of Captain Herb registers in my mind more than the rest: Mike Luckovich’s perfect editorial cartoon

As the years pass — now there have been six — since 95.5 WSB traffic-reporting legend Captain Herb Emory's tragic death, the remembrances of his life are as poignant as the memories during his philanthropic, larger-than-most-of-ours life.

Certain phone calls and messages received still materialize in the brain with the permanence of a marble epitaph, but also with the warmth of Emory's handshake and belly laugh. The images of people's tributes to Emory with window paint on their cars the following Monday morning rush hour and NASCAR driver Chris Cockrum's "Captain Herb-WSB" paint scheme at the following August's Atlanta Motor Speedway race do just the same. But one image of the memory of Captain Herb registers in my mind more than the rest: Mike Luckovich's perfect editorial cartoon in the Tuesday, April 15, 2014 Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

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Drawn by the two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner just three days after Emory’s death, the cartoon shows a Emory, clad with angel’s wings and a halo, perched on the edge of a cloud and looking over traffic-snarled Atlanta overpasses. Behind him at the Pearly Gates are two angels, one saying to the other, “He loves the vantage point …”

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ajc.com

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Luckovich’s work often isn’t so warm. Editorial cartoons by their nature are satirical jabs at and caricatures of those in power and those at the top of the news cycle. And in Luckovich’s nearly 30 years with the AJC, he has seen his opinion on drawing about the deaths of people change.

"I found over the years I used to not like doing cartoons when someone passes away," Luckovich shared on the most recent WSB Traffic Podcast. "But, as the years have gone by, I have found that these are some of my most effective cartoons. People really appreciate those images as a way to sort of say 'goodbye' and to remember the person."

Luckovich recently crafted a cartoon with Joseph E. Lowery, who died on March 27, in heaven, arm in arm with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. King told Lowery that they need not social distance in the afterlife. This was another of Luckovich's perfect blends of classiness, emotion, history, and current events.

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Luckovich acknowledges that his remembrance cartoons are not meant to portray any human being as perfect, however, “You want to try to remember people for the good they did in the world — Herb did a lot of good.”

“There are people that pass away,” Luckovich said, “and I won’t do a cartoon on them. The reason I did one on Herb was because he had made such a personal connection with people in Atlanta. People relied on him. They knew about his outside philanthropy. They knew he was a good guy. Some people just become sort of iconic in a way. He became that. He became part of Atlanta. It wasn’t a thing I had to think about too much. I just knew that when he left us, I needed to do something on him and that’s why I did it.”

Luckovich said that he normally has three or four ideas for the next day’s cartoon and will stare at them and analyze them to even the point past objectivity. He will then consult his editors or, since working from home, his wife, and get their opinions on the one to publish. He didn’t remember such a process when brainstorming his tribute for Emory.

“I don’t really recall, but I can almost tell you that this was probably, it was just a natural thing to do with him looking down on Atlanta in that fashion,” Luckovich remembered. “It was probably a fairly easy day for me because for me it would have been a pretty apparent idea to honor him in that way.”

Captain Herb rode shotgun in the WSB Skycopter, easily evoking that idea of heaven, even before he passed. Creative Loafing long ago did a humorous take on the end of the world and Emory’s soul was the last one in Atlanta called into heaven. Why? Because he needed to man his post in the Skycopter and announce the insane traffic jams to those left behind, as the other souls departed the abandoned vehicles on the roads. Eerily, less than four months before his death, Emory led the charge in covering “Snowmageddon,” which saw thousands of Atlantans abandon their suddenly useless vehicles on the suddenly icy roads.

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Unable to fly in the Skycopter, Emory did many of his reports that day (and many others) from his basement studio — “The Tiny Lund Ballroom.” The “Ballroom” was decked out with more than a dozen police scanners, a two-way radio, several monitors, and even a soundboard to play back different audio on the air on 95.5 WSB. Most of that came in very handy during Atlanta’s biggest traffic crisis.

In ruminating upon Luckovich’s classic summation of Emory, one realizes that Emory is in heaven and yet is still enjoying the great view of Atlanta traffic. He is spending his time in paradise tracking backups instead of strolling down the streets of gold to the endless banquet table. He isn’t popping back jumbo shrimp with Jesus, Dale Earnhardt, or even his dad or son. He’s doing what he did best on Earth and with that shy grin sandwiched between his whiskers. He is watching the roads as an advocate for others — an Atlanta traffic guardian angel.

“I guess you could call him a traffic nerd and he wouldn’t mind that,” Luckovich said when I made a similar comment. That would have been a grand compliment in his eyes.

I can only imagine that Captain Herb Emory’s workflow would not change very much these strange traffic days. Even when the roads were quiet, he always dug as hard as he could to find traffic problems both obscure and mainstream. And the WSB Traffic Team does that to this day and in his honor. We sure do wish he would be right here next to us. But he certainly is loving his vantage point now.

Hear Turnbull's full interview with Luckovich on the latest WSB Traffic Podcast in the On-Demand section of wsbradio.com.

Doug Turnbull, the PM drive Skycopter anchor for Triple Team Traffic on 95.5 WSB, is the Gridlock Guy. He also writes a traffic blog and hosts a podcast with Smilin' Mark McKay on wsbradio.com. Contact him at Doug.Turnbull@cmg.com.