February 12, 2001 12:00 PM

Happiness, as Charles Schulz once wrote, is a warm puppy. Or, in his widow’s case, a warm Border collie who’s getting on in years. “Tommy sleeps in our bedroom now,” says Jeannie Schulz, 61, who lives alone in the Santa Rosa, Calif., house she shared with the beloved cartoonist. “He has to be let out all the time, but he’s my company.”

Since the Peanuts creator died of complications from colon cancer at 77 last Feb. 12, there have been many such adjustments for his wife of 26 years. “I miss the conversation,” Jeannie says. “I miss the cuddling. But I feel his spirit in the house and studio.”

With Schulz’s five grown children from his first marriage, Jeannie is coping with her loss by laboring to protect her husband’s legacy. She is overseeing the creation of the $8 million Charles M. Schulz Museum, set to open in Santa Rosa later this year. She and the children approve all art used in the licensing deals (there are currently 900), and she accepts Schulz’s posthumous honors: He received a life-time achievement award from the National Cartoonists Society in May. And though it has yet to turn a profit—and doesn’t need to since Schulz left a multimillion-dollar estate and his strip is in reruns in 2,400 newspapers worldwide—she continues to run her skating-mad husband’s Santa Rosa rink complex, which opened in 1969. Sparky, as his friends called him, “would want that,” Jeannie says. “His children and I want to make sure his ideas, his drawings, the Peanuts philosophy is upheld.”

It is a daunting task. “Sometimes I wonder, is she going to collapse?” says Lisa Clyde, 40, one of Jeannie’s two children from her first marriage, to real estate broker Peter Clyde. “But I don’t think so. This sustains her.” Not that work erases the pain, for her or any of Schulz’s loved ones. “This was supposed to be a joyful year, Peanuts’ 50th anniversary,” says Schulz’s daughter Jill Transki, 42, a Santa Barbara sports-exhibition producer who ran the annual Christmas show at the rink last year. “But it’s been a memorial year instead. It’s sad.”

Schulz’s son Monte, 49, a novelist in Nevada City, Calif., felt his father’s absence when he learned recently that his wife is expecting twins. “I left our first ultrasound picture on my dad’s grave,” Monte says. “I’ve been missing him.” So has Amy, 44, a homemaker and mother of nine in Alpine, Utah. Each night, Amy says, her daughter Heidi, 4, prays for her grandfather and his characters, concluding, “But we love Snoopy the best. Amen.” Amy’s sister Meredith, 50, who raises mules in Loveland, Colo., says, “I think about my dad every day.” And Craig, 48, a Santa Rosa-based pilot, says taking on the task of archiving old video footage of his father has helped: “It’s almost like having him around.”

Jeannie, who considers Schulz’s 13 grandchildren her own (she also has five from her first marriage), knows the feeling. “The other day I was filling out a form, and I almost checked ‘married,’ ” she says. “I mean, what else am I?” Jeannie met Schulz in 1972 when she took her daughter Lisa to his skating rink for a lesson. Both were separated—Schulz from his first wife, Joyce—and the relationship blossomed. Soon after their 1973 wedding, Jeannie turned up in the comics. “I just saw a strip where Lucy says to Schroeder, ‘If we were married, I would always get up early and fry your coffee,’ ” she says. “That’s about me. I’m not exactly domestic.”

Schulz, who liked taking meals at the rink, didn’t need her to be. “Cartoonists tend to sit at the board all day,” says his friend Patrick McDonnell, creator of the comic strip Mutts. Jeannie, he says, involved in countless local activities, “brought the world in to him.”

Schulz wasn’t always easy to live with. “He could be as smart as Schroeder, as philosophical as Linus and as cranky as Lucy,” Jeannie says. “And certainly as sad, at times, as Charlie Brown.” Yet his depressions never defeated him. “He continued to work despite them,” Jeannie says. “What I loved about him was how hard he worked.” But he had other endearing qualities. “He took gifts seriously,” Jeannie recalls. “One year I gave him pj’s and he gave me a Porsche.”

Schulz kept his hand to the drawing board almost until the end. Diagnosed with cancer in November 1999, he retired in December. He died in his sleep the night before his last new strip ran in the papers, but the timing didn’t mean he had reconciled himself to his exit. “Sparky wanted to get well,” Jeannie says. “He thought he could.”

In the days following his death, grieving fans flocked to the rink near his secluded studio at One Snoopy Place, leaving flowers and notes. To date, the family has received thousands of condolence letters, including one from Al Gore. Most remain stored in Schulz’s studio, a dark-paneled lair that Jeannie has left intact—down to the hollow that Schulz’s hand wore in his desk. Ultimately the room’s contents will be transferred to the Schulz museum. “We haven’t finished reading all the letters,” Jeannie says. “We’ll get to those boxes yet.”

There’s another, smaller box she must get to as well. Still inside its shopping bag, Sparky’s last Valentine’s Day present to her has sat for a year on a closet shelf at home. “I know it’s jewelry,” Jeannie says. “I just haven’t opened it yet. I’m not even sure I can open it now.” Maybe next year.

Kim Hubbard

Maureen Harrington in Santa Rosa

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