As a top executive at the Andrews McMeel syndicate, she played a key role in the careers of Tom Wilson, Cathy Guisewite and Garry Trudeau.

Kathleen Andrews was missing her husband, Jim, who had been on the road for weeks trying to drum up interest in his new company, a fledgling syndication business, when she came across a little gift book titled “When You’re Not Around.” It featured a hapless, hairless, pantless and as yet unnamed character — a hard-luck antihero whose wan exploits fit her blue mood.

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That character would ultimately become the downtrodden but appealing Ziggy, of newspaper cartoon fame, and Ms. Andrews’s serendipitous find would help keep her husband’s company afloat.

Ms. Andrews, who would later become the chief executive of the company and help grow the careers of Garry Trudeau, Cathy Guisewite and Tom Wilson, Ziggy’s creator, died on April 16 at a hospital on Amelia Island, Fla. She was 84.

The cause was congestive heart failure, her son Hugh Andrews said.

Ms. Andrews, who was known as Kathy, “was the mom in the mom-and-pop store in the basement that once drew young creators to Leawood, Kansas,” Mr. Trudeau said by phone.

The pop was Jim Andrews, her husband, who, with his best friend, John P. McMeel, concocted a newspaper syndication company from the basement of the Andrewses’ rented ranch house. Ms. Andrews, who had a master’s degree in mathematics, kept the books. They called it Universal Press Syndicate because, Mr. Trudeau said, “it sounded bland and boring and like it had been around for a hundred years. I thought it sounded like James Bond’s cover.”

They had a mail drop with a Fifth Avenue address in New York City (Mr. McMeel and his wife, Susan, lived in a walk-up nearby). Mr. Andrews gave himself a pseudonym, John Kennedy (for his hero), and it was “Mr. Kennedy” who wrote to Mr. Trudeau while he was a junior at Yale and writing a comic strip called “Bull Tales,” about a college quarterback, for the Yale Daily News.

“He wrote and asked if I was interested in a career as a syndicated cartoonist,” Mr. Trudeau said, “basically offering me the job I still hold and with me literally paying no dues whatsoever. I signed with the total absence of the technical skills traditionally associated with the craft.”

“Bull Tales” became “Doonesbury,” which first appeared in newspapers in 1970 — marking the debut of Universal Press Syndicate as a proper company — and won Mr. Trudeau a Pulitzer Prize in 1975. It was the first comic strip to earn the award. (The central character of “Bull Tales,” who became part of the ensemble cast of “Doonesbury,” was the regressive but sympathetic B.D.) In 1971, Ziggy made his dolorous appearance.

Eventually, the company moved out of the Andrews family house and into actual offices in Prairie Village, Kan. Mr. Andrews and Mr. McMeel began scooping up writers like Seymour Hersh — they syndicated the rights to “My Lai 4: A Report on the Massacre and Its Aftermath,” Mr. Hersh’s 1970 book on his coverage of the My Lai massacre in South Vietnam — as well as cartoonists like Ms. Guisewite.

Ms. Guisewite was a 25-year-old copy writer at an ad agency in Detroit in the mid-70s when she began chronicling the fraught female space between the housewifely ideal of the ’50s and the ambitions of second-wave feminists by conjuring an ambivalent, hard-working, love-seeking, diet-addled and endearing avatar named Cathy. She crafted a booklet of Cathy’s experiences — scarfing fudge ripple ice cream while waiting for Mr. Wrong to call, for example — and sent it to Mr. Andrews, who took it home to his wife.

It was a Hail Mary pass on Ms. Guisewite’s part, and it landed at just the right time. No other cartoonist, she said in a phone interview, was addressing the frustrations of young women or speaking in their voice. Mr. Andrews and Mr. McMeel were actively looking for that voice, she said, but all the submissions they received were from men.

“They didn’t have the emotional honesty,” she said. “That’s what Kathy responded to. She said it was authentic.”

“She loved my work,” Ms. Guisewite added, “and she believed in it and she laughed out loud when the men in the room were silent. My career was founded on Kathy’s kitchen table when she looked at my cryptic and weird scribbles and said, ‘This speaks to women.’”

Ms. Andrews with the cartoonist Garry Trudeau, the creator of “Doonesbury,” and her husband’s friend and business partner, John P. McMeel. After her husband’s death in 1980, she became chief executive of the publishing business he and Mr. McMeel had started.
via Andrews McMeel Publishing

Kathleen Virginia Whalen was born on March 12, 1937, in Ashtabula, Ohio, the youngest of seven children. Her father, Leo, was fire chief of the town, about an hour east of Cleveland. Her mother, Isabelle (McNamara) Whalen, was a homemaker.

She graduated from Notre Dame College in South Euclid, a suburb of Cleveland, with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics in 1959 and four years later earned a master’s from the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, where she met her husband.

In the early days of the company, Mr. Trudeau recalled, he would visit the Andrewses to work on his nascent strip, as all the syndicate’s artists did.

“I would go and stay with them and help them pretend they had a viable business, which unbeknownst to me was very much in jeopardy,” he said. “I didn’t realize until much later how much trouble they were in, but Kathy knew. She was incredibly overqualified to simply keep the books.

“Jim would show up at breakfast in a coat and tie,” he continued, “and after having a few cups of coffee we would all head down to the basement, where he would loosen his tie and take off his jacket and start the day. Kathy would be upstairs with the books. Since there were so few dollars to count and so few features to edit, there was a lot of downtime and a lot of laughs, which is I think what kept them afloat. Together, Jim and Kathy were unstoppable.”

Mr. Andrews died of a heart attack at 44 in October 1980. Ms. Andrews joined the company six months later, and very quickly became chief executive of its publishing business, said her son Hugh, who would later hold that title. He recalled her signing every artist’s royalty check and sending it out with a personal note. “She knew everyone’s family and how they were doing,” he said.

“As the youngest of seven, she grew up sleeping three to a bed,” Mr. Andrews added. “She was a humble lady. Not being in the spotlight was not an issue for her as long as everyone was working.”

Universal Press Syndicate rebranded itself in the late ’80s as Andrews McMeel Universal. By then it had picked up Gary Larson, creator of “The Far Side,” as well as Bill Watterson’s “Calvin and Hobbes,” Dear Abby and Erma Bombeck. It is now the largest independent newspaper syndicate in the world. When Ms. Andrews retired in 2006, she was vice chairman.

In addition to her son Hugh, Ms. Andrews is survived by another son, James; a sister, Annabelle Whalen; and six grandchildren.

Ms. Andrews was awarded multiple honorary degrees and doctorates. With Mr. McMeel, she established a scholarship fund in her husband’s name at the University of Notre Dame. She had been a member of the board of trustees there since 1993; in 1996, she became a fellow of the board, the first woman to do so. She often described that 12-member organization, which is the university’s core governing body, as “11 fellows and one gal. One gal from Ashtabula.”

The Rev. John I. Jenkins, the university’s president, said in an email: “As one of the first women to take a leadership role on Notre Dame’s board of trustees, Kathleen combined strength with her characteristic kindness. While others might raise their voices, I remember Kathleen telling me, with her warm smile, that one of my decisions was plain wrong.”

Ms. Andrews and her husband had minor character roles in “Doonesbury.” It has been Mr. Trudeau’s habit, he said, to name-check his friends and family in the strip, and to make them do awful things. “It’s how I show the people in my life I love them,” he said. Mr. Andrews appears as the craven, much-married businessman of the same name who collects trophy wives, shills for BP after the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and performs other despicable acts; Ms. Andrews is memorialized as wife No. 1.

She was also ever-present in Ms. Guisewite’s “Cathy.” The character did not have a last name for the first few years of the strip, but eventually she became Cathy Andrews — in honor, her creator said, “of the woman whose kitchen table blessing of my scribbles launched my strip.”