By Michael A. Lipton
August 02, 1993 12:00 PM

AS HANK KETCHAM WOULD BE THE FIRST TO ADMIT. Everything he has he owes to a blond, brown-eyed dervish in a striped shirt and overalls: his son. One October afternoon in 1950, when Ketcham was a young freelance cartoonist working at home in Carmel, Calif., he overheard his wife, Alice, scream in exasperation at the latest mischief created by their only child. Dennis, then 4, had used his nap time to deconstruct his bedroom—everything from the bedsprings to the dresser drawers and curtain rods. “Your son,” said Alice, “is a menace!” Whereupon a lightbulb switched on over her husband’s head. And Dennis the Menace was born.

Today, 50 million readers in 14 languages around the world keep up with Dennis’s comic-strip pranks, which have been the inspiration for a popular 1959-63 TV series starring Jay North, legions of Dennis dolls, greeting cards and other Menace-abilia—as well as this summer’s surprise hit movie ($41 million at the box office) starring Walter Matthau and, in the title role, impish Mason Gamble, 7. All of which has made Hank Ketcham, now 73, a millionaire several times over. He and his third wife, Rolande, live in a four-bedroom, ranch-style house they share with their son, Scott, 16 (daughter Dania, 20, is in college), in affluent Pebble Beach, Calif., near the famous golf course where Hank, an 11-handicapper, likes to spend much of his time.

But the years have not been as kind to Dennis, the cowlicked kid who innocently launched a cartoon empire. Now 46, he works as a tire retreader, living with his second wife, Janet, a part-time office cleaner, in a trailer park in Grove City, Ohio, just south of Columbus.

It is more than just geography and lifestyle, though, that distance father and son. For the past 28 years, they have barely seen each other and spoken only occasionally by phone. “I hear from Dennis about once a year, mostly when he needs money,” says Hank tersely. “I don’t want a closer relationship—nor do I want a confrontation.”

“Dad can be like a stranger,” counters Dennis, who has never met his two half-siblings. “Sometimes I think that if he died tomorrow, I wouldn’t feel anything.”

From its very inception, both now agree, the comic strip served only to help drive father and son apart. “I wish Dad could have used something other than my childhood for his ideas,” says Dennis. Hank disputes this. His work, he insists, was “a collaborative effort [of] a team of writers and artists. I never put incidents from my personal life into the strip.” Still, young Dennis had other reasons to be unhappy. By the late 1950s, his dad was spending more and more time away from home, working at his studio or promoting the strip on the road. “I would rather have had a father who took me fishing and camping, who was there for me when I needed him,” says Dennis. According to Hank, “Like any young father trying to get ahead, I focused on my profession. I’m sure Dennis was lonely. Being an only child is tough.”

What made things tougher was the fact that Dennis suffered from a learning disability. His parents’ solution was to place him in a series of private schools. “We never did find out what was wrong,” says Hank. “Even though he wasn’t a behavior problem, Dennis had a difficult time keeping up with academics.”

Alice, meanwhile, was “caught up in luncheons, teas and bouts with demon rum,” as Hank once said, and became an alcoholic. In 1959 she filed for divorce, and as her condition deteriorated, Dennis, then 12, was sent to a boarding school near Carmel. “I didn’t know what was going on,” says Dennis, “except that I felt Dad wanted me out of the way.” A few months after he left for school, his mother died from an accidental overdose of alcohol and barbiturates at the age of 41.

Shaken by his wife’s sudden death. Hank could not bring himself to break the news to Dennis over the phone. Nor could he even tell him in person—until shortly after Alice had been buried. “Mom had always been there when I needed her,” says Dennis. “I would have dealt with losing her a lot better had I been able to attend her funeral.”

Several months later, Hank married Jo Anne Stevens, a flight attendant, and moved the family to Switzerland. Dennis was sent to a local boarding school where, already a slow student, he had even more difficulty learning foreign languages. His stepmother was unsympathetic. “Jo Anne was unused to children,” says Hank, “and she and Dennis didn’t get along.”

Father and son did share good times. Dennis, a competitive swimmer, got pointers from Hank, and the two took vacations together. But at 16, Dennis was sent to a boarding school in Southbury, Conn., from which he graduated in 1966, two years behind his original class. Back in Geneva, Hank and Jo Anne divorced after eight years, and he then met and married Rolande, with whom he moved back to the States. Though Dennis attended their wedding, he was not to be a part of his father’s new life. In 1966 he joined the Marines; during his subsequent year-long tour of duty in Vietnam, he says, “my grandmother and aunt sent me letters. But never Dad.” Hank insists he did write to his son.

Discharged in 1970, Dennis underwent three months of counseling for post-traumatic stress syndrome at a VA hospital and drifted through a succession of jobs—ranch hand, poultry-farm worker, prison guard. Though happily married to Janet since 1991 (they met while both were working at a J.C. Penney in Columbus), he is still smarting from what he calls the “nasty” end in 1982 of a nine-year marriage to first wife Roxanna Imes. He is legally barred (for reasons he will not discuss) from seeing his 17-year-old daughter, Jennifer.

Every now and then, as he did a couple of weeks ago, Dennis phones his father. “I see your movie is out,” said Dennis. “I hope you see it,” Hank replied. Dennis said he hoped to. He then announced that he and Janet are quitting their jobs and resettling in the Southwest, and asked his father to help finance their move. “That’s the way many of our conversations go,” says Hank sadly.

Still, he remains Dennis’s dad. Three years ago, Hank sent his son a copy of his memoir, The Merchant of Dennis the Menace, in which he had inscribed: “To the REAL Dennis with love. Dad.” Dennis proudly displays the book before replacing it on the shelf next to his collection of Dennis the Menace dolls—artifacts from a comic-strip childhood that never was.