Skip to content
Nation & World
Link copied to clipboard

Thelma Keane dies at 82; inspiration for 'Family Circus' Mom

PHOENIX - Thelma Keane, the inspiration for the Mommy character in the long-running "Family Circus" comic created by her husband, Bil Keane, has died. She was 82.

PHOENIX - Thelma Keane, the inspiration for the Mommy character in the long-running "Family Circus" comic created by her husband, Bil Keane, has died. She was 82.

She died Friday of Alzheimer's disease, the family said.

"Family Circus," which Keane began drawing for the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin in 1960, depicts the good-humored life of two parents and their four children. It is now featured in about 1,500 newspapers.

"She was the inspiration for all of my success," Bil Keane, 85, said from his home in Paradise Valley yesterday. "When the cartoon first appeared, she looked so much like Mommy that if she was in the supermarket pushing her cart around, people would come up to her and say, 'Aren't you the Mommy in "Family Circus?" ' and she would admit it."

Bil and Thelma "Thel" Keane met during World War II in the war bond office in Brisbane, Australia. She was a native Australian working as an accounting secretary, and Bil worked next to her as a promotional artist for the U.S. Army.

"I had this desk alongside the most beautiful Australian 18-year-old girl with long brown hair," Bil Keane said. "And I got up enough nerve to ask her for a date."

The two married in 1948 and moved to Bil Keane's hometown of Philadelphia. They had five children and moved to the Phoenix suburb of Paradise Valley in 1958.

Not only was Thelma Keane the inspiration for the always-loving and ever-patient comic character also named Thel, but she worked full-time as her husband's business and financial manager. Her family says that she was the reason Bil Keane became one of the first syndicated newspaper cartoonists to win back all rights to his comic.

"There was nothing that I did in the cartoon world or in the business world that she wasn't the instigator of, and she certainly deserves all the credit that I get credit for," Bil Keane said.

Thelma Keane's Alzheimer's disease was diagnosed about five years ago, and she had been at an assisted-living center near the family home for the last three years, said her daughter, Gayle Keane, 58, of Napa, Calif.

Just last month, Gayle Keane said, her mother was singing and dancing as the family visited her and celebrated her birthday.

"We all had a time to say goodbye in the end," Gayle Keane said. "I just think she's in a better place, and she's not dealing with that fog and confusion that Alzheimer's brings into your life."

Bil Keane continues to produce "Family Circus" with the help of his youngest son, Jeff. Keane sketches out the ideas, characters and captions and sends them to Jeff for inking. The cartoon appears in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

In addition to Bil, Gayle and Jeff Keane, survivors include her sons Neal, Glen and Christopher, and nine grandchildren.

Keane said that although his wife is gone, she is still with him.

"The losing of Thel is a heartbreaking thing for me," he said. "However, it makes me realize how important she was to my worldly success, and I know where she is now, I feel that she's still helping me and probably giving me the inspirations you can only get from an angel in heaven." *