Cards Are Local Man's Hallmark

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Remember the last time you sifted through a Hallmark display and finally came upon the absolutely perfect, laughter-inducing greeting card?

Chances are you weren't thinking of Mike Rokoff. But maybe you should have. If he didn't create the very card you were holding, he almost certainly influenced it.

Rokoff, a six-year resident of Payson, was the first humor writer/artist ever put on contract by the venerable Hallmark Greeting Card Company, and the hallmark he left on the corporate giant starting in the early 1960s is still very visible today.

Not only that, many of the multiple thousands of cards he drew, inked and wrote are still among the company's top sellers. And all of them were created under a philosophy that Rokoff maintains to this day: "If it ain't fun to write and illustrate, it sure as hell ain't gonna be fun to send and receive."

Originally from Nyack, New York, Rokoff grew up with a stutter so bad that he could hardly speak. "I found solace in drawing pictures, and discovered that I was able to communicate just about any idea with a drawing," he said.

That discovery took him places, to say the least. Before his 1961 graduation from Arizona State University, where he earned a bachelor of fine arts degree, Rokoff wrote and drew "Conrad, the Campus Cop," a daily single-panel cartoon for ASU's newspaper.

At that time, Hallmark was looking to expand its line of serious-minded sentiments and to staff its first-ever humor department. Scouring the nation's universities, they came across Rokoff's cartoon and, he says, "made me an offer I couldn't refuse." Thus, Rokoff found himself in the company's brand-new humor division, the Contemporary Department.

"Up until that time, Hallmark did mainly flowery, mushy sort of cards, and decided it was time to get into the humor business," Rokoff said. "With humor, you can say a lot of things and get away with it, and get important points across at the same time."

Rokoff was joined by five other budding, fresh-faced humorists and, in the staid halls of Hallmark's Kansas City headquarters, "We were really the outcasts," he said. "We had long hair and beards and looked weird. We were a sacrilegious kind of group, and they never quite figured what to do with us."

Of course, when the new humor line proved to be an industry-altering smash hit, Rokoff and his motley crew was given the freedom to do whatever they wished. Example: After two years on staff, Rokoff asked for and was given a contract to work first from Paris, France, and then Mallorca, Spain, where he moonlighted as a newspaper cartoonist.

"My strength was in visual humor; very simple drawings with few or no words," he said. "My desire to develop that was partly why I wanted to go to Paris; there, I was forced to do cartoons and express ideas without words, because I didn't speak French, I couldn't write in French."

Three years later Rokoff returned to the U.S. and left Hallmark to work for rival American Greetings. But after another three years, he went back to his old greeting card stomping grounds to develop its ever-expanding line of humor cards, published under the divisional names "My Thoughts Exactly," "Shoebox" and "Tree of Life."

He also performed the occasional freelance job such as the Christmas card he once created for Bob Dylan when the folk/rock star was his neighbor in upstate New York.

"He stored his limousine in my tractor shed and paid me $75 a month," Rokoff recalled. "One year, he asked me to design his Christmas card. I thought he'd want something funny, but all he wanted was a drawing of his house. That was it. But it was still fun to do."

In 1996, Rokoff then living in Santa Fe, New Mexico negotiated a contract that allowed him and his wife, Donna, to live and work in what he had hoped would become his new hometown: Payson. "We had been looking for a place where we felt comfortable, where we could just be ourselves, and this was it," he said with a supremely satisfied smile.

Two years after his move to the Rim country, Rokoff decided to change his status to freelance artist/writer to allow more time to do volunteer art instruction for Payson area schools, and to work for two pet organizations, Paws in the Park (for whom he designed the locally famous dog-catching-a-ball logo) and the Payson Humane Society (for whom he is now in the process of designing a logo).

"I feel like I've done well and that I have had a wonderful career," Rokoff said, "but now there's a part of me that needs to give back."

Quite a statement from someone who has spent most of his life making others feel good.

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