"Peanuts" creator Charles M. Schulz died on Saturday, turning his farewell note in Sunday papers into an epitaph for both a comic strip and its creator.
Schulz was 77, and died in his sleep at about 9:45 p.m. at his home in Santa Rosa, said his son, Craig Schulz.
He was diagnosed with colon cancer and suffered a series of small strokes during emergency abdominal surgery in November 1999, and announced his retirement a few weeks afterward.
Schulz had seemed fine earlier in the day and had gone to his daughter Jill Transki's home in Santa Rosa. Only his wife, Jeannie, was with him when he died, Craig Schulz said.
His wildly popular "Peanuts" made its debut on Oct. 2, 1950. The travails of the "little round-headed kid" and his pals eventually ran in more than 2,600 newspapers, reaching millions of readers in 75 countries.
His last strip, appearing in Feb. 13 Sunday editions, showed Snoopy at his typewriter and other Peanuts regulars along with a "Dear Friends" letter thanking his readers for their support.
"I have been grateful over the years for the loyalty of our editors and the wonderful support and love expressed to me by fans of the comic strip," Schulz wrote. "Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Linus, Lucy ... how can I ever forget them ..."
It ended with his signature.
Over the years, the Peanuts gang became a part of American popular culture, delivering gentle humor spiked with a child's-eye view of human foibles.
Sergio Aragones, a Mad magazine cartoonist and friend for more than 30 years, called Schulz "a true cartoonist."
"In a couple of centuries when people talk about American artists, he'll be the one of the very few remembered," Aragones said. "And when they talk about comic strips, probably his will be the only one ever mentioned."
One of the most endearing qualities of "Peanuts" was its constancy.
The long-suffering Charlie Brown still faced misfortune with a mild, "Good grief!" Tart-tongued Lucy still handed out advice at a nickel a pop, a joke that started as a parody of a lemonade stand. And Snoopy, Charlie Brown's wise-but-weird beagle, still took the occasional flight of fancy back to the skies of World War I and his rivalry with the Red Baron.
Schulz was born in St. Paul, Minn., on Nov. 26, 1922, and studied art after he saw a "Do you like to draw?" ad.
He was drafted into the Army in 1943 and sent to the European theater, although he saw little combat.
After the war, he did lettering for a church comic book, taught art and sold cartoons to the Saturday Evening Post. His first feature, "Li'l Folks," was developed for the St. Paul Pioneer Press in 1947. In 1950, it was sold to a syndicate and the named changed to Peanuts, even though, he recalled later, he didn't much like the name.
Although he remained largely a private person, the strip brought Schulz international fame. He won the Reuben Award, comic art's highest honor, in 1955 and 1964. In 1978, he was named International Cartoonist of the Year, an award voted by 700 comic artists around the world.
He was to have been honored with a lifetime achievement award on May 27 at the National Cartoonists Society convention in New York.
In his later years, he spent much of his time at his Redwood Empire Ice Arena in Santa Rosa, about 60 miles north of San Francisco, where he frequently played hockey or sipped coffee at the rink's Warm Puppy snack bar.
"Peanuts," meanwhile, had remained an intensely personal effort. He had had a clause in his contract dictating the strip had to end with his death. While battling cancer, he opted to retire it right then, saying he wanted to focus on his health and family without the worry of a daily deadline.
"Why do musicians compose symphonies and poets write poems?" he once said. "They do it because life wouldn't have any meaning for them if they didn't. That's why I draw cartoons. It's my life."