PRESCOTT, Ariz. — The artist would perch himself on a bench in the town square, sketchbook and pencil in hand.
In between doodles of his beloved wife and "Miss Kitty" the pet cat, he'd fill page after page with the other subjects that consumed him: the panhandlers who sat under elm trees hungering for pocket change as lovers strolled to dinner and children played on the grass.
Happiness and despair competed for space in the picturesque plaza, as well as in the artist's sketchbook and heart.
Sometimes, the vagrants he studied would notice the pencil and book and hesitantly approach. He'd share his drawings. They'd talk. Sooner or later, the artist would brave the question:
Would you happen to know my son?
He might pull out another sketch, crinkled and watermarked. It showed a man's face, masked by a thick beard and shoulder-length, shaggy hair. Shadows wreathed the eyes, which stared, hardened and defeated, at nothing.
Under the image, in block letters, was one word: "JIMMY."
The artist went by the same name. Jim Willoughby was known around town. He was a successful cartoonist whose work appeared twice-weekly in the Daily Courier newspaper, usually lampooning the mayor or the town council's latest pet project. Years before, he'd worked at Hanna-Barbera and Walt Disney, helping give life to Scooby Doo, Yogi Bear, Darkwing Duck.
His art had been dedicated to making folks smile. Few knew that his gift had also become an outlet for his grief.
They never saw all the other drawings, tucked into sketchbooks and buried inside boxes at home -- of the child whose loss tormented him, of the panhandler he called son.
"My son, my son. What happened? You let a lot of people down but mainly yourself." -- Caption on a pencil and ink sketch of Jimmy, eyes downcast, walking alone on the street.
Long before the sadness, there was the joy of being a father. That, too, Jim Willoughby poured into his art, through the cards he drew by the dozens for his boys, Jimmy and David. These arrived at his ex-wife's house in between his scheduled visits, illustrated with some creature or toy or spectacle.
For Jimmy's 6th birthday, a lion and cheetah chitchatting. When Jimmy was sick, a firetruck and a get-well-soon message. A boy climbing a cliff as another boy stood watching: "Someday maybe we'll all get to climb a real high mountain like this. Until then, we'll practice on the little ones."
He signed them, "Love, Daddy."
Divorced when his sons were toddlers, Willoughby wasn't satisfied being a part-time dad. He was 9 when his own father died following a bout with tuberculosis. Two months later, his mother fell ill and was admitted to a TB sanitarium. Willoughby, his brother and sister were sent to live in a children's home for six years. He never wanted his own boys to experience the loneliness that accompanies estrangement.
Jimmy was 11, David 9, when Willoughby won full custody. He quit his job as an analyst at an aerospace technology firm to stay home, freelance cartoons and raise his kids.
He wasn't terribly strict, but Willoughby had high expectations for them both. When David got his black belt in karate, Willoughby persuaded his shy son to be interviewed for a newspaper story. When David later began working in construction, Willoughby urged him to pursue a contractor's license.
Jimmy, ruggedly handsome with dark hair and a movie-star smile, excelled as a catcher on his high school and college baseball teams, eventually landing a spot on a minor league club. When Jimmy was cut from the team, Willoughby confronted the coach, demanding to know why. Still, Jimmy bounced back, finding work with Motel 6 and rising to regional vice president.
What, exactly, went wrong and why? Over the years, as the elder Willoughby remarried and settled in Prescott, he would dwell on these questions.
"It wouldn't be for me to judge what kind of father I was," he said in a journal entry. "Conscientious, loving, doting, hopeful -- these things I was but the end product(s) speak for themselves. My efforts appear to have been in vain ... "
Above one sketch, he wrote of dreaming about Jimmy, "begging ... on a street corner. Disturbing."
"From Catcher to Panhandler." -- Ink sketch of Jimmy, his left hand extended in a silent appeal, his right holding a container full of coins.
The Willoughby boys admittedly liked their booze, but when David visited his brother the "V.P.," he says he discovered Jimmy's taste for cocaine as well. Jimmy didn't bother hiding the alcohol and drugs from his sibling, although David suspects he did from their father. Then Jimmy lost his job and joined Jim Willoughby and his wife, Sue, in Prescott.
The city, in the cool pine mountains north of Phoenix, calls itself "Everybody's Hometown," but the strip around the courthouse plaza goes by another moniker: "Whiskey Row." Old-time saloons sit next to modernized pubs offering karaoke and shots.