My first experience with Smokey the Bear came in the early 1970s at Boy Scout Camp Tom Hale when we would not only learn about his wildfire prevention efforts, but we also would sing his song.
“Smokey the Bear, Smokey the Bear, Prowlin’ and a growlin’ and a sniffin’ the air…”
Then in 1993, while leading America’s largest scouting district in Northern Virginia, I was approached to serve on the organizing committee for the Rudolph Wendelin Foundation. The effort was to honor and protect the art and other works of Wendelin who had retired from the National Forest Service twenty years earlier as the primary illustrator and guardian of Smokey the Bear from 1944-1973. Getting to know Rudolph Wendelin was like getting to know Smokey the Bear.
August 9, 2019 marked Smokey the Bear’s 75th birthday. Smokey the Bear is at the heart of the longest-running public service campaign in American history. During World War II, Japanese submarines fired shells that exploded on an oil field near the Los Padres National Forest in California. There was a fear that incendiary shells exploding in the forest along the Pacific Coast could ignite raging wildfires.
Protection of forests became a matter of national importance, especially with so many able-bodied men deployed in the war. The Forest Service organized the Cooperative Forest Fire Prevention Program, and in 1944, Smokey was created as the program’s fire prevention symbol.
Rudolph Wendelin was born and raised in Kansas and began his Forest Service career in 1933 in Milwaukee as a draftsman and illustrator. He returned to the Forest Service, after a stint as a Navy artist during World War II, and was given responsibility for the Smokey the Bear project. He created hundreds of Smokey the Bear representations that highlighted natural resources conservation and forest fire prevention.
Under Mr. Wendelin’s guidance, the bear changed. What had originally been a baby bear and then a full-grown animal with long snout, fangs and fearsome claws became a bear with more human features. By the 1950s, the bear (now with the middle name “the”) sported a ranger’s hat and belted blue jeans. His paws had become hands, in which he always carried a shovel, to better protect America’s forests.
Smokey’s popularity under Wendelin’s guidance was undeniable. He appeared on government posters, postage stamps, and television. He also appeared in magazines, spoke on the radio and was used in various teaching materials. He has made movie appearances and the government also licensed his likeness for use on such commercial products as school lunch boxes. Eventually, his popularity reached the point where he was awarded his own zip code, 20252.
In a 1995 interview with The Washington Post, Wendelin said that “Smokey’s influence could be compared with that of the animals in Aesop’s fables and that his message was as old as the Bible itself.” Wendelin retired from the Forest Service in 1973, but continued his association with Smokey and produced numerous calendar and book illustrations until his death in August 2000 at the age of 90.
My friend Rudolph Wendelin was known as Smokey the Bear’s “guardian” as he illustrated and managed Smokey’s image for over 30 years but a few other individuals also played important roles in the life of the American icon.
Saturday Evening Post illustrator Albert Staehle in collaboration with writer and art critic Harold Rosenberg delivered the very first image and poster to the U.S. Forest service for the wildfire prevention campaign giving Staehle the title of “father” of Smokey the Bear and another U.S. Forest Service illustrator Harry Rossoll who was a close collaborator with Wendelin is credited with possibly first sketching a fat bear with a pointed muzzle for the campaign and is regularly given the title of “creator” of Smokey. And though Rossoll was a native of Connecticut and was a career U.S. Forest Service employee in Georgia, his legacy can be found in southeast Oklahoma.
Although Smokey the Bear gave Rossoll his greatest fame it was an unexpected project during his retirement that gave him even more satisfaction. In the mid-1970s, he was invited to paint 14 7-by-25-foot murals/dioramas for the Forest Heritage Center Museum located in Beavers Bend State Park near Broken Bow.
The murals which required 12 years to complete, illustrate the forest past, present and future. Each diorama is accompanied by a taped narration. In 1993 six years before Rossoll’s 1999 death at age 89 he said. “This creation of my murals in Oklahoma Forest Heritage Center is my glory in my life. I don’t care whether I die now because I’ve reached the pinnacle of my life.
Plan a visit soon to the Forest Heritage Center Museum at Beavers Bend State Park near Broken Bow http://www.forestry.ok.gov/fhc
To learn more about Smokey Bear, including wildfire prevention activities for kids and educators, visit https://smokeybear.com/en
In the fall of 1993, I was so honored to be a part of a Rudolph Wendelin Tribute Gala as we launched the Rudolph Wendelin Foundation. And was so very pleased to be able to lead and direct, as a tribute to Wendelin, 100 local Boy and Girls Scouts in the singing of that song that I had learned at camp 20 years earlier, ““Smokey the Bear, Smokey the Bear, Prowlin’ and a growlin’ and a sniffin’ the air…” Happy Birthday Smokey!