Wiley Baxter could always tell folks he would “see them in the funny paper” and really mean it.
His character would appear in the panels of “B.C.,” at one time the most widely read comic strip in the world.
He would be dressed in caveman garb, with his famous peg leg and whiskers poking like porcupine quills from his stubbled chin.
Wiley was the dreamer who sat high on a hill beneath a tree, writing poetry on his stone tablet.
He was the baseball and football coach of the prehistoric cave teams, often being interviewed by the sportscaster, Peter.
The characters – B.C., Thor, the Cute Chick, the Fat Broad and others -- would consult “Wiley’s Dictionary” on the round rock to look up the definition of a word. They would sip suds down at “Wiley’s Bar.”
When Wiley Baxter died on Monday, eight days shy of his 92nd birthday, a piece of bedrock Macon history went with him. Fran, his wife of 71 years, passed away in early January. Saturday, Wiley will be buried next to her at Macon Memorial Park.
For more than 40 years, his brother-in-law, the late Johnny Hart, drew the caveman character in honor of Wiley, who lost his right leg in World War II but never lost his gentle spirit.
Hart was a photographer for the public information office at Robins Air Force Base when he met his future wife, Bobby, at a dance on the base. She was a lab technician at the old Macon Hospital and Fran Baxter’s younger sister. As newlyweds, they lived in the College Hill section of Macon, where Hart drew some of his earliest caveman caricatures. He and Wiley were like brothers.
Hart died on April 7, 2007, the day before Easter. Wiley will be laid to rest on the day before Easter, seven years later. That irony will not be lost on anyone close to the family, since Wiley was once at the heart of one of Hart’s most controversial strips.
In 1996, The Los Angeles Times refused to run several B.C. strips containing Christian messages during Lent. The cartoon for Palm Sunday featured Wiley resting against a tree, writing a poem called “The Suffering Prince.” Five years later, on Easter Sunday 2001, Hart caused a stir again when he depicted a menorah (a seven-branched Jewish candelabrum) being transformed into a cross with the text of Jesus Christ’s last words.
Wiley was a shy and humble man, not exactly the persona of Hart’s scruffy comic character, who had an aversion to water and rarely took a bath. Wiley was always clean and well-groomed. Also, he was a man of few words, so he didn’t write much poetry. He was passionate about sports, though, especially Auburn football and the New York Yankees baseball team.
Wiley Cargill Baxter was born in a sharecropper’s house along Route 2 in L.A. -- Lower Alabama. He was one of nine children, and his family called him “Toodlems.” When he was 17, he convinced his mother to let him join the Army because he was “tired of looking at the south end of a mule traveling north.” He and a buddy were on leave from Fort Benning when he met Fran (everyone called her “Doutie”) at a church dance near her tiny hometown of Boston in south Georgia.
She was a tomboy of 14. Their first date was to an Auburn-Georgia football game in Columbus. He courted her for two years and would sneak behind the woodpile to steal a kiss. Fran’s three sisters would sometimes tag along when they went to the “picture show” at Boston’s lone movie theater, appropriately called “The Bean.”
They married in June 1942. There was no honeymoon. Wiley had to hurry to catch the bus back to Fort Benning before his midnight curfew. On his 22nd birthday on April 22, 1944, he was sent to Europe with the 3rd Infantry. During the Battle of the Bulge, he was engaged in heavy fighting against the Germans along the Colmar River (near the Rhine).
An artillery shell hit the old World War I concrete bunker he was in, killing two of his buddies. Wiley suffered a broken arm and jaw. His right leg was shattered and had to be amputated. He pleaded with the doctor at the field hospital to try and save his leg. “We’re going to try to save your life, son,” the doctor said.
He returned to the U.S. on April 12, 1945, the day President Franklin D. Roosevelt died at Warm Springs. He was discharged in 1947 after spending more than two years in military hospitals. The Baxters moved to Macon in 1951, where he began working with munitions at the Naval Ordnance Plant. Hart used to tease him about that. “If anything happens out there, working around all those explosives, you’re going to get blown up in Macon, too,” Hart told him, laughing.
The Baxters raised three fine children -- Herky, Hank and Suzie. Hart based many of his characters on family members and friends, but he showed a special admiration for Wiley.
A reader once complained Hart was using the Wiley character to make fun of handicapped people. Hart responded by explaining Wiley’s story was his way of honoring them.
At one time, “B.C.” appeared in more than 1,300 newspapers and reached more than 100 million readers. The Washington Post hailed Hart as “the most widely read writer on earth” in 1999. Folks paid attention to the details, too. Hart once made the mistake of flipping the transparency so Wiley’s “peg leg” appeared on his left. Several observant readers let him know about it.
I grew very close to the Baxter family over the past 11 years and visited them after they left Macon and moved to an assisted living facility in Fort Oglethorpe on the outskirts of Chattanooga.
They were special people. I will miss them.
But I know where I can always find Wiley.
He will be there ... in the funny paper, just like he said.
Reach Gris at 744-4275 or firstname.lastname@example.org.