You'd think that after nearly 40 years, a guy would get tired of drawing pictures of Smokey the Bear.
Not 72-year-old Rudolph Wendelin, who, just the other day, finished painting his umpteenth portrait of the bear who says only you can prevent forest fires.
"I never seem to get tired of drawing Smokey," says Wendelin. "I've been associated with it for so long, that I have a kind of special responsibility to carry it on as long as I can."
For almost 30 years as an artist with the U.S. Forest Service, Rudolph Wendelin was "caretaker" of Smokey the Bear's image. As a young artist in 1945, Wendelin joined the Forest Service and inherited a young, long-haired, sharp- toothed bear named Smokey. The bear was the conception of a group of foresters, advertising experts and artists who thought Smokey should be the centerpiece of a campaign to halt man-made forest fires.
Wendelin humanized Smokey, giving him fingers instead of claws and softening the wild-animal look; Smokey began to look more like Burl Ives, a kind of sober, likable fella you could trust to dispense good advice.
The rest is history.
In 1952, Smokey became big business when Congress passed a bill authorizing the commercial licensing of Smokey's likeness. Clothing, dolls, candy and ceramics, among other items, were sold emblazoned with Smokey's mug or furry body, earning the government as much as a quarter of a million dollars a year in royalties. And though Wendelin retired from the Forest Service nine years ago, he still consults on drawings of Smokey and paints scenes starring Smokey for such clients as an Iowa firm that markets Smokey calendars.
"Smokey's popularity kind of staggers me," admits Wendelin, who has not only popular sentiment but also statistics on his side: In the first 20 years of the Smokey campaign, despite increased usage of national forests, fires caused by man dropped 50 percent. That makes Smokey the Bear the star of that rarity: a government program that works.