NEW YORK — The package of rough scribbles that Cathy Guisewite sent to the Universal Press Syndicate in 1976 did not look at all like the accomplished comic strips Lee Salem usually edited.
“I could not draw at all,” Guisewite recalled. “What I sent Lee wasn’t organized into a strip; it was just raw emotion on the page. These were drawings meant for my mother’s eyes only: the humiliating, worst moments of one young career woman’s life.”
But Mr. Salem recognized a strong new voice in Guisewite’s embryonic work. Rather than tell her to spend more time developing her ideas, he quickly sent her a contract to create “Cathy” — an anxiety-ridden (“Ack!”), body-conscious woman whose vulnerability struck a nerve with readers pleased to follow her, frame by frame.
“He sent me a note with the contract saying he was confident I could draw,” she said in a phone interview.
The success of “Cathy,” which ran until 2010, was one of many for Mr. Salem at Universal, where he nurtured an empire of quirky and influential comic strips like Garry Trudeau’s “Doonesbury,” Gary Larson’s “The Far Side,” Bill Watterson’s “Calvin and Hobbes,” Aaron McGruder’s “The Boondocks” and Lynn Johnston’s “For Better or for Worse.”
Mr. Salem died Sept. 2 at his home in Leawood, Kan. He was 73. His wife, Anita (Parker) Salem, said the cause was a stroke.
Mr. Salem understood what made comic strips tick, prized lively writing, and gave substantial leeway to his cartoonists.
“We believe in the creative process, and we believe that the cartoonists, once they have developed a relationship with their readers, have a right to try certain things,” he said in an interview for the website Mr. Media in 2007.
Mr. Salem also positioned himself as what Trudeau called a “human firewall” for cartoonists when readers or newspaper executives were angered by episodes of “Doonesbury.”
In 1985, Mr. Salem chose not to distribute six installments of “Doonesbury” that satirized the anti-abortion film “The Silent Scream.” That story arc was “so controversial that it might kill the strip altogether,” Mr. Salem told The New York Times.
A month later, Trudeau mocked Frank Sinatra’s alleged ties to organized crime and had him, in one strip, threatening a casino blackjack dealer if she shuffled the cards before dealing. Through his lawyer, Mickey Rudin, Sinatra demanded a retraction.
“Lee called me up and said in that calm, steady voice of his, ‘Rudin says you got a lot of the facts wrong,’ ” Trudeau said in a eulogy delivered at Mr. Salem’s memorial service. “And I replied: ‘Of course I got a lot of the facts wrong. I made them up.’ ”
So, Trudeau added, “Lee directed the syndicate’s counsel to send a one-sentence reply stating the obvious: that the strip was covered by the First Amendment. Rudin stood down.”
Lee Salem was born July 21, 1946, in Orlando, Fla., and grew up in Boston and Portsmouth, N.H. His parents were Rosemary (Segars) Salem, a waitress, bartender, and factory worker, and Louis Salem.
Mr. Salem received a bachelor’s degree in English from Park College in Parkville, Mo., and taught high school English for a year. He then earned his master’s in English at the University of Missouri, Kansas City.
While attending graduate school, he worked in the claims department of a health insurance company. One of his college teachers, who was freelancing at the Universal Press Syndicate (now called Andrews McMeel Syndication), recommended him for a job at the syndicate as an assistant editor in 1974.
In 1981, he was promoted to vice president and editorial director.
“He took over for my father, and the editorial side never missed a beat,” Hugh Andrews, chairman of Andrews McMeel Universal, said by phone. (Andrews’ father, Jim, founded the syndicate with John McMeel in 1970.) “Lee was at his core very smart, caring, and compassionate, and as loyal to his creators as he could be.”
One of those creators was Watterson, who in 1985 brought Universal a comic strip about a little boy named Calvin whose stuffed toy tiger, Hobbes, comes to life, but only in Calvin’s mind.
“It was so breathtakingly simple, fresh, and professional that I had to set it aside with the thought, ‘This can’t be as good as I think it is,’ ” Mr. Salem recalled in an interview for the website GoComics in 2015.
At its peak, “Calvin and Hobbes” was syndicated to 2,400 newspapers. Watterson ended it in 1995.
Four years later, Universal began running “The Boondocks,” which satirized African-American culture and US politics through the eyes of its young lead character, Huey.
“The match of Aaron McGruder’s talents with the times was perfect,” Mr. Salem said in an interview in 1999 with Hogan’s Alley, a magazine about comics. “Newspapers seemed ready to accept a strip that used satire, candor, and a strongly held perspective to tackle this country’s toughest subject: race.”
Mr. Salem, who became Universal’s president in 2006, also oversaw the syndication of other editorial products, including William F. Buckley’s column and “Dear Abby.” But it was his nurturing of comic strips that earned him the 2013 Silver T-Square award from the National Cartoonists Society for his service to the profession. He retired in 2014.
In addition to his wife, Mr. Salem is survived by his son, Matt; his daughter, Laura Salem; five grandchildren; and a half brother, Ed Callahan.