Retired pastor makes connections with pad, pen

Freelancer Photo by Sara Feldman -- Carnival Cruise line worker Santika, who is from Indonesia, sits for a portrait by Joe McKeever.
Freelancer Photo by Sara Feldman -- Carnival Cruise line worker Santika, who is from Indonesia, sits for a portrait by Joe McKeever.

DRAWN IN

If you’re out and about around town and a gentleman with white hair and a beard comes up and asks if he can draw you — say yes. It will make his day, and it just might make yours as well.

His name is Joe McKeever and for more than 65 years, any time he has had a free moment, out comes the pad and pen. And anyone is a potential subject — from teenagers at the food court, to the entire staff of a Waffle House, to people in the waiting room at a hospital.

The drawings are always free, unless it’s for a fundraiser, but there is one rule: You have to smile. “Everybody looks better when they smile,” he said.

Though he loves to draw anyone, he says some people naturally stand out.

“I have two favorite kinds of people to draw,” McKeever said. “The first are the real characters, like the guy in the big cowboy hat ambling through the mall or the woman in the Quarter with the big hat and crazy earrings. People like this are just crying to be drawn. And then there’s the drop dead gorgeous. You almost can’t get that wrong.”

McKeever says that drawing people is so much a part of who he is he just can’t stop. “My wife always asks me, ‘What do you get from this?’ ” he said. “I answer, ‘It’s simple really — joy, pure joy.’ ”

McKeever retired four years ago after working as a Southern Baptist pastor throughout the South for 42 years. But long before he knew he was going to be a minister, he found his love of drawing, and it was all because his mother was a bit frazzled one day.

“My mom had six kids, all within a span of just nine years, so she had her hands full,” McKeever said. “One day when I was 5 she was home with me and her 3-year-old and 1-year-old. She just needed us to sit for a bit, so she gave my 3-year-old sister and me pencils and paper and told us to draw. That was it for me. I just loved to draw.”

McKeever says that by the first grade he’d have a crowd gathered around to watch him. “I can still outdraw any first-grader,” he said, laughing.

When he was 16, McKeever’s older sister started paying $10 a month for him to take a correspondence course on cartooning. It’s the only formal art training he’s had, but it’s been enough for him to accomplish his simple goal — to make people smile — thousands of times over.

And sometimes these simple little drawings he does elicit more than just a smile. For at least a few people over the years, they’ve become priceless keepsakes.

Such was the case with one old man who, at first, refused to smile for his portrait. The man passed away just three days later and his children told McKeever the drawing he had done meant the world to them. “They said it was the only picture they had of their dad smiling,” he said.

And then there’s the time McKeever was in a hotel lobby passing time and found himself in a rare moment without a pad of paper. He saw a little girl of about 5 he wanted to draw, so he grabbed a newspaper and tore a page out and asked if she’d smile for him. She did and he drew, handing the finished product to the mom.

Days later he got an email from the mother, (McKeever signs all of his drawings with his website — JoeMcKeever.com). She explained that only eight days earlier the family had lost everything in a house fire. Since the fire, her daughter, Macy, hadn’t smiled once.

“She said she had been sitting in that hotel lobby praying to God that she would see her daughter smile again just before I had shown up,” McKeever said. “She said not only was her prayer answered, but on the back of the paper where I had drawn Macy’s picture was an article about her family losing their home.”

“We’re now Facebook friends,” said McKeever, beaming.

“All from one little drawing.”