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Brushstrokes of Genius: The Legacy and Revival of Chicago Bears Artwork

The story of Jerry Keefe, the artist behind great Chicago Bears artwork from yesteryear, and the revival of that spirit today from Israel Idonije to Kate Lewis.

Sixty years ago, Jerry Keefe put the finishing touches on an incredible 19-year career with the Chicago Bears. Despite never catching a pass or making a tackle, Keefe left an indelible mark on the franchise. The Bears won over two-thirds of their games when featuring Keefe, including the 1943 NFL Championship. His highlights hang throughout Halas Hall, are displayed proudly at Soldier Field, and they even show up today in some unexpected places.

For many fans of the era, the name “Jerry Keefe” headlined their first purchase through the gates at Wrigley Field – the game day program. Keefe’s legacy with the Chicago Bears came in the form of cover art, creating lasting images that endure as cherished keepsakes and collectible items. His work dominates trips down memory lane on the Chicago Bears homepage and third-party websites sell recreations to hang on your wall. The playful images of illustrated bears taking swipes at opponent mascots make for a great splash of color in the den of any Bears fan, but this story is more than just a celebration of an artist’s portfolio. This story reveals a friend and business partner of George Halas who carved out a legacy with his side hustle and how the Chicago Bears aim to revive the spirit of that work today from Israel Idonije’s superheroes to local artists creating game day covers for social media.

Covers illustrated by Jerry Keefe for games against the Packers in 1946, 1949, and 1948

A Man of Good Humor

Born in Colorado in 1909, Keefe’s family moved to the booming city of Chicago when the world found itself in a global conflict for the first time. He grew up loving sports and drawing. In fact, he played baseball into college until he suffered a hip injury that left him with a noticeable limp. The limp gave him an instantly recognizable gait, particularly on the golf course where he spent the majority of his free time.

Keefe later graduated from the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts where he studied under two Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonists, the Chicago Tribune’s Carey Orr and Vaughn Shoemaker of the Chicago Daily News. While he dabbled in the political commentary of editorial cartoons his professors specialized in, he took the skills learned from Orr and Shoemaker to develop marketing campaigns for various commercial products in popular advertisements of the time.

Jerry Keefe’s first program cover, 10/10/1943 against the Cardinals

Walt Disney, a Chicago native and fellow Academy of Fine Arts student, pioneered animation in movies. According to Keefe’s son, Keefe worked with Disney in some capacity, likely in a consulting role, on early Disney classics like Fantasia. His first Bears cover in 1943 featured two fans that look like they just stepped out of a Disney picture to take in a game at Wrigley Field.

Despite spending his formative years in Chicago, Keefe never lost the small-town connection that informed the work of his signature artistic achievement, his very own syndicated comic strip. “The O’Kays” ran in newspapers throughout the country during the 1940s. The strip, penned under the pseudonym “Jay Kay,” Jerry Keefe’s initials spelled out, featured a “typical American family” full of light-hearted observations viewed from the lens of a comfortably well-off family of the time. The O’Kays, in other words, were doing okay.

Jerry Keefe’s comic strip “The O’Kays” written under the penname Jay Kay

The imagined surname O’Kay most likely held a double meaning for Keefe. First, the name O’Keefe commonly lost the “O” on an immigrant’s journey through Ellis Island from the old country. Second, Keefe drew the O’Kays from his own experience raising two children with his wife on the north side of Chicago. In a 1948 interview, Keefe admitted to The Cambrian that he got “all the material he needs for the O’Kays right at home… being just an average American family.”

In addition to the “O’Kays,” Keefe held various jobs, including art director of an advertising agency and public relations director of Lewis University. He converted the upper story of his family’s home in Rogers Park into his own personal art studio. It was there that the creative energy of the artist guided innumerable stories in comics and advertising campaigns.

In the early 1940s, the creative artist crossed paths with a former right fielder for the Yankees and a small business owner. Because of that meeting, Keefe eventually earned the opportunity to create program covers for the Chicago Bears.

“So, you know who George Halas is, right?”

Jerry Keefe’s son, also named Jerry, posed that question to me about five minutes into our first conversation. I happened to be staring at the bobblehead collection of Chicago Bears greats given out at home games for the 2019 season that sits on my desk. That collection includes the special Papa Bear bobblehead the Bears sent their season ticket holders, wearing his signature suit and fedora.

Yeah, I know George Halas.

“George was my Godfather.”

Oh my.

At this point in the movie script, the phone falls from my hand while Jerry yells “Hello? Hello?” as though the connection severed while I scramble to compose myself. In real life, my jaw fell open before I responded with a “WHAT?!” an octave too high, the volume creeping up to 11.

Jerry Keefe’s covers for games against the Lions in 1957 (left) and 1959 (right).

The story of how Halas and Keefe met is likely lost to time. A connection made through the church seems the most likely scenario, but the younger Keefe thought his dad’s work with youth in local boxing clubs might have caught Halas’s eye. Either way, when the two men connected, they formed a lifelong friendship that expanded to Keefe drawing program covers - about two every year - and other joint business opportunities.

“My dad took me downtown and showed me a plaque on the side of a building on Wacker Drive (along the Chicago River),” the younger Keefe remembers. “My dad and George owned a sales promotion agency called ‘Halas and Keefe.’ I believe the Spiegel catalog was a client at some point.”

Jerry Keefe’s Bears covers against the Eagles in 1955 (left) and Cardinals in 1956 (right).

Keefe’s good humor endeared him with many of the Bears players of the day, the younger Keefe recalls. “George Blanda was a god! He was such a big deal to me growing up. He was over at the house a lot in those days.”

Imagine seeing your idol on the gridiron standing in your backyard, hunched over the grill, talking to your father. From Sid Luckman to Harlon Hill, Jerry Keefe made friends with many Bears players and coaches and enjoyed a position in the social circle of Chicago Bears football.

The Evolution of a Cover

Early game day programs featured nothing more than a roster of players listing their names and numbers with a simple cover, likely the same image used for the entire season. As time marched forward, advertisers started buying up real estate in the popular souvenir, while the programs expanded to include pictures and biographical information. To get the fans to cough up their nickels and dimes, publishers started using attractive cover images, a new one each home game, providing an avenue for artists to inject life and color to the keepsake.

1939 covers illustrated by Stu Merrell featuring Bill Osmanski, Joe Maniaci, and Bobby Swisher.

The 1939 season featured drawings by artist Stu Merrell on the cover, the first time a cover artist’s name appeared in a series of program covers. Merrell drew the cover art while his dad, Lew Merrell, edited programs for the Bears. That arrangement seemed likely to persist if not for a tragic accident. Merrell fell to his death falling down an elevator shaft as the 1940 season neared kick-off.

Program covers from 1940-1942 featured black and white photos of Bears players against colorful backgrounds (above) or neutral art packages with unrecognizable team colors (below).

In the next three seasons, the Bears started using a combination of neutral art packages – players wearing unrecognizable color schemes without insignia – and black & white pictures of Bears players cut out and arranged on a colorful background. The neutral art packages would stick around and dominate the bulk of home programs in Chicago and elsewhere in the league. In fact, you can find the same cover image used in games from Chicago to New York and everywhere in between with only the text differing. Teams around the league started to employ artists to develop work on some of their home programs. In 1943, Jerry Keefe picked up that mantle for Stu Merrell for the Bears.

“I’m a sucker for these vintage covers,” John Conroy, Chicago Bears Director of Brand Creative admits. “The goal with any NFL program cover is to create excitement about the team and to make the reader want to explore what’s inside. His illustrations, use of color, and fonts are so effective. My eye is always drawn to his (Jerry’s) images when presented with an assortment of game program covers.”

Jerry Keefe covers from 1943 against the Packers of a bear wearing the #57 of Scooter McLean (left) and from 1945 of a bear wearing the #17 of Pete Gudauskas against Card-Pitt (right).

In other words, Keefe’s work stands out today as much as it did on Sunday afternoons in the 1940s and 50s. The early images rely on the cartoon type characters that made him a gifted animator. The images of Bears wearing navy and orange jerseys stand out as particularly fun early editions. While clear to the fan in the 1940s, the jersey numbers corresponded to some of the stars of the day.

The angry looking Bear in the 1943 program wearing number 57 represented Ray “Scooter” McLean, the Bears Pro Bowl dual-threat halfback. A Bear kicking a football in the war-era 1944 program wore the number 17 of Pete Gudauskas. The left guard also served as the primary kicker for extra points, converting an impressive 63/64 during the ’44-’45 seasons.

Keefe covers from 1945, against the Lions wearing George Wilson’s #30 (left) and against the Rams wearing Ed Sprinkle’s #7 (right).

The 1945 programs featured two of the more famous Bears on the team. In the program cover against the Lions, a Bear wearing Chicago native George Wilson’s number 30 catches a pass as the lion helplessly swats at the ball. Wilson enjoyed a 10-year career in Chicago, winning 4 titles and earning 3 Pro Bowl nods and an All-Pro selection. The program against the Rams that year shows a Bear taking the wind out of a ram, forcing a fumble with a comic book-like earth-shattering background. The number seven on the back of the bear was not an homage to Keefe’s friend George Halas, but for Hall of Famer and feared pass rusher Ed Sprinkle, who donned that number at the time.

Jerry Keefe’s Bears cover against the Packers from 1947 (left) and image of the shirt from 2020’s Solider Field 5k (right).

Arguably, the most famous of Keefe’s images appears in a 1947 program cover against the Packers. A happy looking bear with the buckteeth of a beaver makes a stiff-arm pose as he gallops along, wearing the number eight of Hugh Gallerneau. The Stanford grad earned First-Team All-Pro honors from Pro Football Illustrated in 1946 as a halfback in the T-Formation. That image clearly inspired the swag for the Soldier Field 5K, which took out the buckteeth and added some claws.

Jerry Keefe’s Bears cover from 1953 against the Cardinals

The 1951 season brought a unique image to the portfolio. It features the only “real people” portrait with a depiction of Halas kneeling along the sidelines, players of the day on the bench behind him, and a rowdy crowd full of entertaining characters taking in the game. For the record, the players from left to right: Ray Bray #82, JR Boone #57, George Connor #81, Bulldog Turner #66, Ed Sprinkle #7, Johnny Lujack #32, Washington Serini #23, and Dick Barwegen #26.

The other program from 1951 represents a major shift in the style, one Keefe would prefer for the rest of his career. Starting with the 49ers game that year, Keefe used watercolor paintings as his medium for expression. It reflected his growth and interest as an artist, moving away from the more comic book images of the early years.

Jerry Keefe’s Bears covers against the 49ers from 1951, 1952, and 1953
Jerry Keefe’s program covers from 1954 against the Lions (left) and 1960 against the Colts (right)

Keefe’s ability to inject humor provided an extra layer of storytelling in a few images. Like the program from 1952, where the bear looks to attack the 49er panning for a golden football (above), or the 1954 cover with the bear looking to pelt the defending champion lion with a football from behind a fence. The 1960 cover against the Colts may top them all as the bear heats up a “CB” brand in the fire as an unsuspecting Colts mascot looks on in the background.

Jerry Keefe’s Bears covers against the Cowboys in 1960 (left) and against the Vikings in 1961 (right). Both were the first home games against each franchise.

Keefe ended his career creating programs for the Bears with some of his best work. In addition to the aforementioned cover against the Colts, Keefe drew the covers against the Cowboys in 1960 and Vikings in 1961 to mark the first-ever home match between the Bears and those squads. The last cover, a bear holding a match above a canon aimed at a Viking ship, kicked off one of the great divisional rivalries in franchise history.

National Football League Illustrated covers for the Bears-Packers game in 1962 (left) and the same cover art image from the 49ers-Vikings game the same year (right).

In 1962, the Bears started using National Football League Illustrated to take care of program production. The company used generic imagery, not unlike what the Bears had used for non-Keefe covers the preceding two decades, customizable with text boxes for any game throughout the league. Efficient, bland, and frankly, impersonal. Gone were the opportunities for local artists around the league to create playful images that thrilled fans then as much as it does for those stumbling onto them today.

Until now.

“Hey, Izzy, you still interested in doing the comic characters?”

Planning for the 2018 programs, John Conroy saw an opportunity to freshen up the artistic direction of the Bears. He and his team agreed that the design campaign starting in 2015 had reached a natural conclusion in the 2017 season. He also knew that the design in 2019 would feature the 100th season celebration. He needed to fill the gap in 2018 with something.

“In the past, we had thrown around the idea of using a comic book look on random projects here and there,” Conroy remembered. “2018 was the perfect opportunity to unveil the comic book look. Fortunately for us, we had an alum in the business to help bring our vision to reality.”

That alum, something of an expert in filling gaps on the field, stepped up once again for the Bears. Israel Idonije, the 10-year NFL veteran, and his company, Athlitacomics came to the rescue with a superhero-themed marketing campaign. The work appeared on the programs, tickets, and a weekly comic strip on social media. Idonije’s work brought a special touch to a season full of highlights, but the idea took years from conception to delivery.

Superheroes from Athlitacomics, featuring Akiem Hicks (left), Khalil Mack (center), and Eddie Jackson (right).

Every superhero has an origin story and the Monsters of the Midway comic is no different. In late 2012, Idonije’s last season in Chicago, the Bears held an “alumni practice” where former players would come back to see the team in action and mingle with the current roster. The relaxed practice atmosphere also attracted front office personnel to the field. Scott Hagel, Senior Vice President of Marketing and Communications, appeared at Idonije’s side and asked a simple question: “Hey, Izzy, you still interested in doing the comic characters?”

1970 program cover from Bears-Chargers (left) with Dick Butkus compared to the Incredible Hulk on interior page (right)

Idonije quickly got to work, pulling out an old program from 1970 that sparked the original idea. The old program featured nine of the most popular Marvel comic characters on the cover. On the inside, the magazine paired the Marvel characters to players in the NFL, including comparing legendary linebacker Dick Butkus to the Hulk. Idonije saw it for much more than a relic of the past. He saw the players as superheroes on the gridiron and the universe to go with it.

Original concept art from Athlitacomics of Julius Peppers (upper left) and Brian Urlacher (upper right). Program mock-up of Julius Peppers (lower left) next to the program of Eddie Goldman from 2018 (lower right).

Idonije and Athlitacomics created mock-up images in early 2013 of his teammates Brian Urlacher and Julius Peppers, with Peppers on the cover of an imagined game (Idonije created the image before the NFL released the schedule - the image used the date September 22, 2013, which saw the Bears win in Pittsburgh 40-23). The Bears liked the idea, but not the timing. The Bears went in a different direction for 2013, both on and off the field. The Bears moved on from both Urlacher and Idonije, the latter finishing his career with a final season in Detroit. However, the Bears never forgot the idea and called a few years later to set it in motion.

“You have to give them a lot of credit,” Idonije explains. “He (Hagel) got it. Someone has to be able to see the vision before you put in the work. Timing is everything and they did it right. The Bears went all-in on the narrative and the story. Every corner of the franchise embraced it.”

The Bears bought in and the people responded. Fans and critics alike praised the effort and Idonije’s team took home multiple advertising awards. Best of all, the players became the biggest fans, flooding Idonije’s text messages with appeals to feature them in the next comic or to introduce them as a new character that saves the day.

Chicago Bears players as imaged by Athlitacomics. Jordan Howard (upper left), Eddie Jackson (upper right), Akiem Hicks (Iower left), and Cody Whitehair (lower right).

“Everybody that had abs said ‘oh yeah, that’s what they look like’ and Akiem Hicks said ‘that’s exactly what my body looks like,’” Idonije recalls, laughing at the memory. “We unveiled life-sized images of some of the players we adopted first and they all loved it.”

The Monsters of the Midway comic incorporated what happened on the field in real life each week to the ongoing quest in the comic world. The Bears collected the stories into a comic book they sold at the conclusion of the year. It stands as an incredibly creative achievement, blending real-life storytelling in a created universe, holding appeal for the casual fans just as much as it does for the fanatics.

Monsters of the Midway comic book cover (left) with a 4-panel comic strip of the Bears taking on the Packers (right)

“It widens the fanbase,” Idonije explains. “People would say: ‘I’m not even a Bears fan, but now I’m in because of the comics.’ Giving fans that additional touchpoint helps grow the game.”

Bears legends George Halas (left), Gale Sayers (center), and Mike Ditka (right) from Athlitacomics

In 2019, the Bears re-upped with Idonije to augment their historical 100th season celebration, adding new heroes to the portfolio. Legendary players like Gale Sayers and Mike Ditka got the comic book treatment. Even Papa Bear himself appeared in a throwback 1920s uniform. In the 2019 storyline, the legends acted as conduits of power for the current heroes to summon during tough spots.

“Being able to work with the team on this project was such a great highlight in my career. I hope to continue to build on the universe we created into something that’s evergreen for the fans.”

Every superhero needs a villain to vanquish, and opponent mascots stood in as a rotating cast of evil-doers central to the storytelling in the comics, a theme that Jerry Keefe tapped into with his work long ago. Idonije continues, “With these old programs, he’s (Keefe) telling a story. Like the one with the bear in the number seven jersey tackling the ram (pictured above). You want the content that you create to make them laugh, to tell a story, and that lives on forever.”

Idonije instinctively singled out the program depicting fellow defensive end, Ed Sprinkle, doling out punishment on an opposing player because that story speaks to him at a subconscious level. As he worked his way through Keefe’s portfolio, his excitement level rose. He highlighted other images he liked, explaining the stories the pictures told him.

“These images will never get old,” he explains. “They never lose their luster.”

Keefe and Idonije, two men separated by more than a half-century, speaking the same language to tell their version of the story to Bears fans of the day and those that find their work in the future.

“Part of something bigger”

The Chicago Bears social media team wanted in on the action. In 2019, vintage-style programs paid tribute to the Bears 100-year anniversary, delivered via digital program covers fans could download and share. The series proved so popular the Bears wanted to run it back in 2020. This time, they partnered with the Chicago art gallery All Star Press and seven local artists to put their creativity to work. The resulting portfolio brought a range of creative expression full of color and life with a connection to the shared history of Chicago Bears artwork.

Kate Lewis, a Chicago-based muralist, added her take with program covers for the Bears games against the Saints and Jaguars. Normally, her work covers the side of a building, but Lewis added a significant sports crossover to her professional portfolio the last few years. In addition to the Bears covers, she designed a mural inside the United Center for Bulls fans and just launched a partnership with the Cubs by designing t-shirts and limited edition prints. The fact that the prints sold out in less than five hours underscores the appetite for this intersection of art and sports, giving fans that additional touchpoint.

Chicago Bears vs New Orleans Saints program cover illustrated by Kate Lewis, released on Bears social media

Lewis used the art deco era of the 1920s to guide her design of the Bears-Saints poster, but she instinctively tapped into the mascot theme when designing the central story in the piece. Like all good program covers, it tells a story. The Bears mascot, wearing Khalil Mack’s number 52, brutally stiff-arms the Saints mascot wearing the number 41 of opposing star running back Alvin Kamara. The football fan that can discern those numbers for the opposing players derives an extra layer of satisfaction from the image as their mind imagines the same thing happening on the field – Mack running over Kamara on his way for a defensive score.

Looking at Jerry Keefe’s portfolio, Lewis picked up certain themes from Keefe’s work. “He uses a consistent color palette and repeats some images like the ones with the big football shape in the middle,” she explained. “I love the shape and expression of the different bears over the years.”

When Lewis developed the two posters for the Bears, she thought of it as a one-off type project. She created her work based on what she saw in her mind in the art style she thought best served her skills to bring the image to life. Presented with examples of the Bears historical imagery in Keefe’s portfolio, she felt connected to history.

“It’s humbling to be part of the picture now that I’m seeing these,” Lewis reflected. “It makes me feel like I’m part of something bigger.”

Lewis and the other artists told their story through the lens of their experiences and in their own personal style. After studying Keefe’s portfolio, one can draw a connection from that era to the 2020 images with the central themes of dueling mascots prevailing as the favored choice of expression for the artists.

Jerry Keefe’s cover for 1953 Bears-Rams (upper left) next to Bianca Pastel’s 2020 Bears-Falcons (upper right). Keefe’s 1955 Bears-49ers cover (lower left) next to Joey Depakakibo’s 2020 Bears-Rams cover (lower right).

Bianca Pastel’s 2020 Bears-Falcons cover of the mascot heads harkens back to Jerry Keefe’s Bears-Rams cover of 1953. Joey Depakakibo’s Bears-Rams creation follows the same path, conjuring up a similar handshake from Keefe’s 1960 Bears-Cowboys cover (pictured earlier) and the 1955 Bears-49ers cover of the mascots fighting on a suspended log.

The Bears plan to continue supporting the intersection of art and culture with the football world. They support the “My Cause, My Cleats” campaign and work with local artists to create murals around the City of Chicago. Even in the face of adversity, the Bears added another unique piece of work to their collection.

“Because of COVID regulations last year we didn’t have the opportunity to have our team photo taken,” John Conroy explained. “We didn’t want a gap in our history so we teamed with a local artist to illustrate the 2020 team photo.”

Chicago Bears 2020 team photo, complete with illustrated face coverings due to COVID-19 protocols

Each time another artist lends their creativity and artistic prowess to one of these programs, they add to the work of Stu Merrell, Jerry Keefe, Israel Idonije, and other artists to tell the story of Chicago Bears football. Whether a fan buys a physical program at the game, sees a digital cover on social media, or discovers the work decades after the paint dries, the stories echo through the generations.

Looking Back, Moving Forward

Just two and half years after his last program launched the Bears-Vikings series, Keefe entered a golf tournament on July 4, 1964, near his new home in Omaha, Nebraska. A warm, humid day baking in the summer sun almost certainly led to his sudden death later that afternoon when he laid down on the sofa and failed to wake up.

At the funeral, Jerry’s son accepted the condolences and advice of family friends, including his Godfather George Halas.

“George always gave great advice,” the younger Keefe recalled. “He told me ‘everyone is going to tell you that now you’ll need to be the man of the house and while that’s true you need to make sure you have some fun along the way’ and that’s always stuck with me.”

It is fair to say that Keefe would have co-signed Halas’s advice. Keefe brought humor and joy to the lives of Chicago Bears fans and his art stands the test of time. As the Bears continue their quest to support the intersection of art and culture with football, they build on a rich history of artistic expression.

The former Bear Idonije said it best: “All of this work, the street art, the comics, the vintage programs, are the artists telling us about their love for the team and the city. So many layers of the story there that will live together. Yes, football is the primary focus, but with tools like art, we can tell these equally important stories that will live forever.”

All known Jerry Keefe covers starting in 1943 (upper left) to the last cover in 1961 (lower right).

The author would like to thank John Conroy, Chicago Bears Director of Creative Brands, Israel Idonije, former defensive lineman and owner of Athlitacomics, and Kate Lewis, the talented muralist for their time and thoughtful answers. Special thanks to the younger Jerry Keefe for opening up and sharing stories about his dad and childhood surrounded by Bears legends.