In Rex Babin's perhaps most beloved editorial cartoon, huge hands reached down from on high to steady US Airways Flight 1549 as it floated on the Hudson River, passengers standing on its wings.
The "Wings on the Hudson" cartoon showed a different, more emotional side of Babin to Sacramentans who were accustomed to the sharp observations of his political cartoons: It showed his heart.
Babin died at his Curtis Park home early Friday morning at age 49 after a long struggle with stomach cancer.
"That cartoon resonated with people on the flight," said his wife, Kathleen. "He heard from many of the passengers and crew, and he presented it to Captain Sullenberger when he was in Sacramento. The reaction was amazing.
"But he liked the ones that stirred up controversy. He was proud of doing that."
For Babin, passion was the point of his work. With what Sacramento Bee Editorial Page Editor Stuart Leavenworth called "an amazing blend of edge and humanity," Babin's cartoons touched people, stirring their anger and outrage, making them laugh and making them think.
"When Rex nailed a cartoon, it resonated more than anything we could say in words," Leavenworth said.
Many of the political figures he'd skewered over the years remembered him with praise.
"In politics, as in life, you have to be able to laugh at yourself from time to time," said Gov. Jerry Brown. "Rex had a unique ability to make biting comments in a way that still managed to put a smile on your face."
Said former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger: "Rex was truly a great artist. He put a smile on people's faces, even as he educated the people with his cartoons and made them think about difficult current issues."
He liked to tell people that he was born to be a cartoonist: From the time he was in diapers, he was drawing and playing with crayons.
He was born in Walnut Creek to Shirley and John Babin. When he was 4, his father died of myasthenia gravis, and his mother moved Rex and his younger brother, Trent, to Los Angeles, where she sold real estate.
A field trip to the Los Angeles Times when he was in junior high showed him a career, after he saw the work of Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist Paul Conrad, Kathleen Babin said.
He cartooned for the student newspaper at San Diego State University, where he majored in English. After working as a graphic artist at the Orange Coast Daily Pilot, where he met his wife, he worked as editorial cartoonist for the Times Union in Albany, N.Y., and the Denver Post.
Babin joined the Bee in 1999 and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2003. He was also a past president of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists.
"He was a cartoonist who other cartoonists really respected," said his longtime friend, Jack Ohman, editorial cartoonist for the Portland Oregonian. "I thought he was the most artistically talented cartoonist in the U.S. He was almost painterly in his approach.
"He was influential with other cartoonists because he challenged them all the time to talk about local issues that affected their own readers."
He took special pride in his local cartoons, which provided pointed commentary on City Hall, the Capitol and local life. Babin continued working whenever he felt visually inspired by the news and up to drawing, his wife said. And his last cartoon was published on March 4.
"Rex shared a piece of himself with every cartoon he drew," said Cheryl Dell, publisher of The Bee. "His wit, wisdom, sense of optimism and friendship will be sorely missed both by readers and his Bee family."
Those closest to him knew that Babin was a devoted family man who described the day his son, Sebastian, now 10, was born as the best day of his life; and an athlete who played football in high school, surfed in college and for the past two decades was a competitive rower.
"We were friends because we both loved the outside," said fellow River City Rowing Club member Peter Brostrom. "We liked to talk politics and sports. We're both passionate about our families and friends and life in general.
"I had a lot of conversations with Rex this past year about what life means. A lot for him involved recognizing at the end how truly beautiful life is and what a gift it is."
Babin is survived by his wife, Kathleen, and their son, Sebastian, as well as his mother and brother, who live in Las Vegas.
Services are pending. The Bee is setting up a trust fund for Sebastian Babin.