John Kelly's Washington

Warm and fuzzy memories of Smokey bear

Rudolph Wendelin drew Smokey Bear for nearly 40 years.
Rudolph Wendelin drew Smokey Bear for nearly 40 years.

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By John Kelly
Sunday, May 2, 2010

Answer Man's column last week on Smokey Bear's sojourn at the National Zoo prompted many readers to share examples of the ursine fire-prevention specialist's local connections. For example, the voice of Smokey was provided by local radio personality Jackson Weaver, who with partner Frank Harden had a long-running morning show on WMAL. Weaver said he created Smokey's distinctively deep and gruff voice by speaking into an office wastebasket.

And for nearly 40 years, Smokey was drawn by Rudolph Wendelin, a Forest Service artist who lived in Arlington and sported a life-size Smokey on his porch. Weaver died in 1992; Wendelin in 2000.

Lynn Johnson of Salt Lake City was among readers incensed at Answer Man for supposedly truncating the bear's name. Wrote Lynn: "The real name was Smokey THE Bear, as evidenced by the official song: 'Smokey the Bear, Smokey the Bear/Growling and prowling and sniffing the air./He can find a fire before it starts to flame./That is why they call him Smokey,/That is how he got his name.'

"I learned that song over 50 years ago, maybe 55. You are perpetuating a '1984'-ish change in the genuine history of Smokey. Officious bureaucrats changed his name."

No, not officious bureaucrats. Songwriters. Steve Nelson and Jack Rollins wrote the song in 1952, two years after the singed bear cub was found in New Mexico and named Smokey Bear. They needed an extra syllable to maintain the correct rhythm of their melody and threw a "the" in.

Maureen Kenny of Falls Church had a lovely memory of Smokey Jr. during a visit to the National Zoo. Maureen was admiring the bear in his enclosure, along with a woman and her 4-year-old son. A sign informed visitors that what they were looking at was not the original Smokey. Wrote Maureen: "The mom shared this info with her son and seemed amazed when he said, 'I know that, Mom.' "

How did you know that? asked the mother.

" 'He's not wearing blue jeans,' came the answer."

Going a bit further afield, Tim McConnell reported that his grandfather C. R. McConnell was with the New Mexico Fish and Game Department at the time of the Lincoln National Forest fire that the "real" Smokey survived. "He was called in to the fire site to assess the situation for the Fish and Game Department," Tim wrote. "He was at the base camp when they brought out the bear cub. He was given the job of taking care of the bear until it was flown out, holding it wrapped in a blanket for several hours."

That means that Tim shook the hand that shook the paw of Smokey Bear.

Finally, in the 1960s, Mark Griffin of Davidsonville was living in Rye, N.Y., and working at a country club. He dated a girl whose father was the man who came up with the famous Smokey Bear campaign for the Advertising Council. "He was a big burly guy, and I always thought he looked like Smokey," wrote Mark. (Answer Man hopes he wore more than just blue jeans and a hat around the house.)

The Ad Council is a nonprofit organization that works with advertising agencies that volunteer to come up with public service announcements. Smokey is probably the group's most successful creation. According to the Forest Service, the bear is -- along with Santa Claus and Mickey Mouse -- one of the Top 3 most-recognized characters in America. (Not -- in case any children are reading -- that Santa Claus is a character.) In a survey, 75 percent of Americans could complete the phrase, "Only you . . ."

The answer -- " . . . can prevent forest fires" -- was amended in 2001 to " . . . can prevent wildfires." The change was made to remind people that things besides forests can burn; grasslands, for example.

Question? Answer: answerman@washpost.com.


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