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Inspire Me: ‘Relax, I just do cartoons’

After a firm knock on the door, Walt Lardner steps into a room at Palmetto Health Children’s Hospital, greeted by the perplexed look of the people inside.

“Relax, I just do cartoons,” he says, a statement both succinctly explanatory and overly modest.

His 10-minute masterpieces aren’t just cartoons. They’re mood improvers.

Sleep-deprived parents seldom know exactly how to respond when handed the colorful caricatures. Most say something along the line of “Isn’t that cute?!” But before they can really express their gratitude, Lardner is out the door and checking his list to find the next patient to visit.

He’s not there for the pat on the back or the thank-you. The look on patients’ and parents’ faces when they first view the caricature is enough.

Palmetto Health Richland is celebrating the 100th year of its auxiliary, which coordinates hospital volunteers. Most of the work done by hundreds of volunteers each week is subtle and hardly recognized by patients. Then there’s Lardner, whose Wednesday-morning cartoon rounds have been leaving an upbeat impression for 24 years.

Flossie Harvie, education coordinator for the Children’s Hospital, probably has a better handle on how much people appreciate Lardner than he does.

“When I go into a room, his drawings are one of the first things children want to show me,” Harvie says. “Getting something like that is unexpected.”

Hannah Carr of West Columbia looks taken aback when told Lardner wants to draw a cartoon of her 3-year-old daughter, Alexandra. But like nearly everyone Lardner approaches, she allows him to do his work.

Lardner first sketches an outline in pencil, then pulls colored markers from the work pouch around his waist.

“I’ve got to put some color in here to cover up all the mistakes I made,” he says.

Pink for Alexandra’s face, brown for her topknot of hair, orange and red for her Dora The Explorer T-shirt. More pencil work fills in the details, including Lardner’s trademark Hobo the dog on the side.

Longtime readers of The State would recognize Hobo from the editorial and sports cartoons Lardner supplied as a freelance artist for the newspaper a few decades back. After growing up in New York and getting his professional start there, Lardner moved to Columbia to work for ETV in the 1960s.

Lardner never lost the New York in his voice. When he hands the cartoon to Alexandra, she doesn’t seem sure what to make of this grandfatherly man with gray hair and glasses and a strange accent, but she likes the cartoon.

“He gave that to me?” she tells/asks her mother after a long pause.

“Thank you,” Alexandra quietly says to Lardner after her mother’s prompting.

Thousands of sweet “thank yous” have been bestowed on Lardner in 24 years at the hospital. He hardly ever misses a Wednesday, and he usually hits 16 to 20 patients each week.

He’s learned that some families want to talk, while others just aren’t in the mood and let the TV provide a soundtrack while Lardner sketches. Sometimes, all he asks is what the child likes — a general question that often leads to a reference to some sport or pet. He then props a baseball cap on the head or a soccer ball by the feet.

“I hope you have a sense of humor,” he often concludes, as if the patient or parent might be insulted by something in the caricature. On the contrary, Harvie suspects there are thousands of Lardner caricatures taped to refrigerators in the Midlands.

Some parents offer to pay Lardner.

“They’ll say, ‘What do I owe you?” he said.

“You owe me a smile,” he tells them.

“If I crack a smile on somebody’s face who’s not feeling too good, it makes my day.”

Reach Holleman at (803) 771-8366.