Thanks to my friend and colleague, Ken Sargeant, I was notified that Mel Tapley, for many years the arts and entertainment editor here at the AmNews, was honored at the Field Library May 12 in Peekskill. It was officially “Mel Tapley Day” in the city that, along with the NAACP chapter there, paid homage to the editor, cartoonist and a versatile civic stalwart in Peekskill and elsewhere.
When I began at the AmNews in 1985, Mel was my assignment editor, and he allowed me to cover Broadway and concerts and to write other entertainment features. He had a warm, unassuming demeanor with an almost retiring attitude by the time I met him, although I could tell that wasn’t always the case for someone as outgoing and gregarious as he was.
The last time I saw Tap, as we affectionately called him, was at his 85th birthday celebration in his hometown, and that moment was vividly recalled as Ken described the recent tribute to the writer and artist I deeply admired.
There is no need to write anything new about Tap. I fully expressed my feelings for him when he passed in 2005 at the Westchester County Medical Center in Valhalla, N.Y. He was 86.
Born May 29, 1918, in Peekskill, Melvin Stanton Tapley, was a graduate of Cooper Union and New York University, earning a degree in graphic design and a $2,500 scholarship, before beginning 55 years at this paper in 1941. His cartoon strip, “Breezy” was syndicated in several Black newspapers. One of the longest serving employees at the paper, Dorothy Williams, remembered Tap when he began at the paper. “He was the kindest, gentlest, most easygoing person I’ve ever met,” she said. Like me, she was at Tap’s 85th birthday fete in Peekskill.
Along with his tenure at the paper, Tap was deeply involved in his hometown’s civic and community affairs. He was the first president of the Peekskill NAACP and in the 1950s arranged for Eleanor Roosevelt to visit that city so that she could address the issue of racism. Earlier, he had been a courageous supporter of Paul Robeson, welcoming the singer to town in an infamous visit that prompted racists to riot. During his long and productive life, he also served on the Peekskill City Board of Education and as superintendent and as a Sunday school teacher at Mt. Olivet Baptist Church.
“I first met Mel just before World War II,” recalled his longtime friend, Horace Carter. “He succeeded Bill Chase at the AmNews. One thing about Mel that placed him above most writers was his artistic ability, plus he knew the issues as well as anyone. Plus, he was instrumental in bringing the union, the Newspaper Guild, to the AmNews.”
A veritable Renaissance man, Tap was the recipient of numerous awards and honors, including the 1996 NAACP Lifetime Recognition Award. In the early days of his productive career, he was extolled by the Pioneers of Excellence in Communications and in 1979 he received the Positive Image Award from the Leviticus International.
In the 1990s, according to his daughter, Allison, and his granddaughter, Imani Thompson, Tap was inducted into the Peekskill High School Hall of Fame for his brilliance as a writer, artist and political activist.
The accolades for Tap could fill this entire page, but I think it best to let his cartoons, historic illustrations, particularly from his “Jim Steele” and “Spoffin” panels, speak for him. And I was pleased to learn from Ken that the Field Gallery, during the tribute to him, featured many of his original drawings and panels, from the archives of the AmNews and from Cornell University’s Division of Rare Books and Manuscripts. Mayor Andre Rainey was the keynote speaker at the day for Tap.