'Family Circus' Mommy dies in Paradise Valley at 83 - East Valley Tribune: East Valley Local News

'Family Circus' Mommy dies in Paradise Valley at 83

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Posted: Sunday, May 25, 2008 4:43 pm | Updated: 11:19 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

PHOENIX - Thelma Keane, the wife of "Family Circus" cartoonist Bil Keane and the inspiration for the Mommy character in the long-running comic, has died of Alzheimer's disease. She was 82.

"Family Circus," which Bil Keane began drawing in 1960, features two parents and their four children, mixing humor with traditional family values. It is now featured in about 1,500 newspapers.

"She was the inspiration for all of my success," Bil Keane, 85, told The Associated Press from his Paradise Valley home on Sunday. "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. The couple 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 Mommy character, but she worked full-time as her husband's business and financial manager. Her family says 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 was diagnosed with Alzheimer's about five years ago and had been living at an assisted-living facility 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.

She said her mother began rapidly declining last week and passed away very peacefully on Friday.

"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."

Thelma Keane also is survived by her four sons, Neal of Northridge, Calif., Glen of Santa Clarita, Calif., Christopher of Dragor, Denmark, and Jeff of Laguna Hills, Calif.; and her sister, Tess Horne of Brisbane; and nine grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held at 10 a.m. Saturday at The Franciscan Renewal Center in Paradise Valley. It will be open to the public.

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.

Keane said 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."

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