Written by Dave Fidlin | Photos and images submitted
Growing up, Ed Steckley dreamed of contributing to MAD Magazine and being a part of “Saturday Night Live.” The 2018 University of Wisconsin-Whitewater graduate achieved both goals through a varied career that he attributes to a message on the campus bulletin board.
Steckley, who holds a B.A. in graphic design and a minor in art history, has been selected as one of the university’s Distinguished Alumni for Professional Achievement for 2023.
The freelance illustrator first attended UW-Whitewater in the first half of the 1990s, but left school as his burgeoning career gained momentum. He eventually decided to tie up the loose ends and completed all of his degree requirements in 2018.
“I had about eight credits left to fulfill the requirements,” said Steckley, who was living in New York City at the time he finished his degree. “I thought to myself, ‘I should take care of this. I don’t like having unfinished business.’”
Steckley, who returned to his native Racine in 2022, has lived most of his adult life in New York, though his time in Whitewater has been top of mind over the years.
Throughout his formative years and on into adulthood, Steckley said there never was a doubt in his mind of what he wanted to do for a living. The resources on the UW-Whitewater campus helped him paint the portrait of his career path.
“I’m happiest when I’m at a drawing board,” Steckley said. “I can just come in here and lose hours. I just know it’s what I’m supposed to be doing. It’s where I’m the most comfortable, and it’s always been that way.”
His first job, which helped him build an all-important portfolio, was courtesy of an announcement on campus.
“I answered an ad that was in the art building — ‘Come draw caricatures’ — and I thought that was cool,” Steckley said. “I did that, working at theme parks in the summer. I can trace my career trajectory to a flier that was hung up in the art building.”
Over the years, Steckley’s illustrations have popped up on a variety of platforms. Alongside his still-intact relationships with “Saturday Night Live,” NBC’s venerable late night sketch show, and MAD Magazine, Steckley’s award-winning resume over the past three decades has included work in children’s books — including the “Rube Goldberg” series — as well as magazines, newspapers and a range of advertising agencies. Some of his works also have been displayed in art galleries and museums across the country.
“MAD Magazine is the accomplishment I'm the most proud of,” said Steckley. “Having my art published in it has been a dream since I was a kid. When I got to do a cover, I was beyond thrilled.”
Depending on the nature of his assignment, Steckley’s work ranges from rapid-fire, as is the case for “Saturday Night Live,” to the months-long process of working on a book.
Speaking to the illustrations he draws on “Saturday Night Live,” Steckley said, “It’s always an intense process. They ask if I’m available on a Thursday, I’ll get the gig on Friday, and then I have to have it in by Saturday at 1 p.m. to make it to air, and there’s no guarantee it will make it to air.”
Steckley’s career has taken him to other corners of the globe as a liaison to the USO. In the past decade, he has visited troops serving in such countries as Afghanistan, Iraq and Kuwait.
“We get flown around to the different war zones, military bases and hospitals,” Steckley said. “We draw and do autographs. They’re morale-raising missions. They’re all places I would never be able to go. They’re so eye-opening.”
Steckley is a longtime member and current vice-president of the National Cartoonists Society, where he has won multiple accolades in the past several decades as a Divisional Reuben Award winner. Additionally, he has been a part of multiple professional organizations, including the National Cartoonists Society, Society of Illustrators and the International Society of Caricature Artists.
Whenever possible, Steckley said he enjoys giving back, drawing on the inspiration he received at UW-Whitewater. He credits mentor Dennis Dale, a professor of art and design, and instructor Sue Messer as impactful during his time on campus.
“I liked them because they always talked to us as adults,” Steckley said of Dale, who retired from UW-Whitewater in 2015. “I would talk to him about what I wanted to do, and he was always supportive.”
While a skill such as illustration is at least partially innate, Steckley pushes back against any notion of being self-taught. Mentors and peer collaboration, he said, are a pivotal part of growing in any discipline.
“We all learn from other people,” he said. “Don’t think that you’re a superstar. You need to be able to learn from people who have already learned.”
Steckley has been able to maintain most of his professional relationships in New York and beyond even as he returns to his original stomping grounds.
The long road ahead might not be paved just yet, but Steckley said the dreams he fostered as a child will be a part of the journey.
“I have no idea what I’ll be doing in 10 years,” he said. “I just know I’ll be drawing.”