Chet’s “Little Bird” Returns to Her Nest

Jean Gould O’Connell, only child of Dick Tracy creator Chester Gould, passed away peacefully at her home in Geneva, Illinois on the evening of August 22, 2021. She was ninety-four.

Jean was instrumental in expanding her father’s legacy and introducing new generations to his iconic newsprint detective.

1944-8-6 Dick Tracy Sunday excerpt featuring Jean

Longtime fans of Chester Gould’s enduring comic strip likely recall Jean as inspiration for “WAC,” Tess Trueheart’s beach friend, who appeared briefly during Tracy’s World War Two-era case in which he tracked down the traitorous Brow. She’s also fondly remembered as interior designer Jean Ellen, Tess’s art school friend who designed the Tracy’s new home in time for Christmas, replacing the home Blowtop’s henchmen had bombed months before, on
Easter morning.

1950-7-16 Dick Tracy Sunday excerpt featuring Jean Ellen

The Jean I grew to know over these past thirty-plus years deeply loved her father and devoted her life after his passing to both discovering and perpetuating his innovative creativity. As she succinctly described in preface to her touching tribute, Chester Gould—A Daughter’s Biography of the Creator of Dick Tracy, Chet “was a private person in the public eye.” Since Gould shunned the spotlight as much as possible during his long career in order
to protect the integrity of his strip and shield his family, most of what people knew about him resided in press clippings.

Scouring her dad’s studios and business office to assess and organize the immense volume of retained artifacts over the years that followed his death, Jean discovered much about his already-legendary career that had remained obscured. So when the mayor of Woodstock, Illinois invited Jean for a second time to join a community group intent on honoring her father, she poured her heart, soul, and a considerable sum of her own resources
into what would blossom into the Chester Gould-Dick Tracy Museum. Over seventeen years, sixteen thousand fans spanning the U.S. and the globe enthusiastically responded, visiting Woodstock to share their love for Chet and his Dick Tracy comics. That reception was overwhelming at times, but Jean took it all in stride, enjoying and sharing in those heartfelt sentiments.

Chester Gould-Dick Tracy Museum opening day, June 1991 – L to R – Jeff Kersten, Shel Dorf, Jean O’Connell

You see, Jean possessed this rare gift of presence, making everyone around her feel like they were the most important people in the room. I initially believed this gift came from her dad, but later discovered this grace was among her mother, Edna’s, talents. Still, children are a product of both parents, and when Chet wasn’t creating ghastly adversaries for his four-panel detective to overcome, he showered Jean, his “little bird,” with fatherly affection, making her feel like the most important person in his world. In her own way, she simply mirrored her
parents’ love for her, showering it onto nearly everyone she met, later embracing many of Chet’s devoted fans as extended members of the Gould family.

Once interest in Woodstock’s annual Dick Tracy Days festival waned in the first part of the 21st Century, Jean was among the first to recognize the possibilities that could be realized by transforming this physical tribute into a virtual presence on the World Wide Web—www.dicktracymuseum.com. While that site remained a plan on paper when Dean Mullaney invited me to begin contributing to The Complete DICK TRACY in January 2009, my
first response was to seek Jean’s blessing and assistance.

Dick Tracy’s 75th Birthday Gala, October 2006 – L to R – Tracy O’Connell, Ed Beling, Victor Wichert, Sue Sanders, Jean O’Connell, Matt Hansel, Jim Johnson, Beau Kaelin, Jeff Kersten

Many years earlier, Jean and I began a conversation about her dad that would continue over the course of her life. She cheerfully devoted countless hours over those years walking me through his archives and answering every question I asked. Fruit gleaned from these encounters primarily underpin my biographical essays, and nearly all the supplemental material spread over my contributions to twenty-two of the series’s twenty-nine volumes are products of Jean’s careful preservation.

Like clockwork, every six months she reported being stunned when proof-reading each new essay for the first time. It’s clear our partnership with The Library of American Comics brought back many of the emotions and much of the excitement she felt when initially exploring her dad’s material in the late 1980s and early ’90. She was our biggest cheerleader, enthusiastically receiving and approving of fresh perspectives on Chet’s life and work. A
sample response came with our final draft for Volume 13, when Jean wrote, “I just finished reading your latest essay and to put it mildly, it’s tremendous. It began rather slowly, setting the climate of our time in history, then covered so many fascinating years in dad’s life with Tracy. I don’t know how you did it. Bravo to you!”

L to R – Brian Walker (Hi & Lois) with Tracy O’Connell, Jean O’Connell and Sue Sanders at the Chester Gould-Dick Tracy Museum

As the series delved headlong into the final decades of his work—what her biography referred to as Chet’s “disturbing years”—Jean regularly challenged my conclusions, then attentively considered every piece of evidence I’d uncovered with curiosity and care. Together we decided how best to proceed. This was especially the case when conversations with Dick Locher brought to light secretive aspects of the U.S.’s Cold War national security policies that inspired much in the strip’s controversial so-called “Moon Period,” and the stories that followed.

During my last in-person visit with Jean, a month before the COVID-19 virus slammed the door on any future face-to-face visits, she asked me to continue investigating and sharing Chet’s story and the historical relevance of his work. I agreed, and we both acknowledged that so much remains to be explored. I confidently suggested that, due to her singular dedication to this task over thirty years, generations to come will plumb and refine the surface
understanding we had only begun scratching in The Library of American Comics Dick Tracy series.

Glowing at the prospect, Jean grasped in that moment – perhaps for the first time – that the end of her life would close only the first chapter in the unfolding story of the Gould legacy.

Jean with Jeff and his children

I love my friend Jean dearly, and I’ll deeply miss her smile, her infectious joy and persistent encouragement. I’m forever grateful to her for nurturing my childhood dream of becoming a historian. She was truly one of a kind, and I like to think that she’s with her dad right now, a teenager glancing over his shoulder to see what Mole, or Brow are up to, a bluish-gray cloud of Robert Burns Panatela cigar smoke encircling them.

Jeff Kersten

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *