I once interviewed the San Diego Chicken, who ranks among history’s most famous mascots. He made a special appearance at a Mercer basketball game. Of course, I had to ask the guy (Ted Giannoulas) if it got hot inside that costume.
“If you can’t stand the heat,” he told me, “get out of the chicken.”
I have some experience at this. I once dressed in a 7-foot yak costume and visited three Bibb elementary schools during character education week. A few years ago, I secretly frolicked through the city as “Petals the Poodle” during the Cherry Blossom Festival, and nobody was aware it was me.
But I have nothing on Frank Craven.
The man has been Smokey Bear.
He has walked in those famous paws.
Frank spent more than 30 years with the Georgia Forestry Commission. Whenever talk turns to Smokey, it’s like fanning an old flame on memory lane.
Smokey, the legendary bear with the wide-brim hat and a shovel, is an American icon that will turn 70 years old this year.
Yep, Smokey will officially be a septuagenarian in August. (I’m not sure what that is in bear years.)
Frank was getting ready to start his senior year of high school the summer Smokey was born in 1944. He was drafted by the Army the following spring and caught the tail end of World War II before attending college on the G.I. Bill.
He had heard the call of the great outdoors ever since he was a Boy Scout growing up in Oswego, N.Y., on the shores of Lake Ontario. After the war, he was interested in going to forestry school. But college enrollment was overwhelmed with returning veterans, and the University of Georgia’s forestry school was one of the few accepting out-of-state students.
So he landed in the South. And, before his life intersected with Smokey, he met Millie.
Millie Morgan worked at the soda fountain of a drugstore in downtown Athens. Frank occupied a stool there every chance he got, but not because he was hungry. They were married on Veterans Day in 1950.
When Frank graduated in 1951, it was perfect timing. The state was expanding its forestry programs. He became the first ranger in Butts County in Jackson.
He also worked in McRae and Rome before he was offered the job of chief of information and education for the Georgia Forestry Commission in Macon in 1955.
Fire prevention was the message, and Smokey was the messenger. As part of his public relations duties, Frank cheerfully dressed in the bear costume for parades, pageants, school assemblies, library groups, fairs and festivals. He would drop his voice with the familiar growl: “Remember ... only YOU can prevent forest fires.”
He and his staff would hand out rulers, ball point pens and ash trays bearing (no pun intended) Smokey’s image. They gave away posters, comic books and shoulder patches, even Smokey Bear bingo cards.
Over the years, Frank had the opportunity to meet two gentlemen who were instrumental in making Smokey a legend. Rudy Wendelin was the first full-time artist to work on the Smokey campaign and was considered “caretaker” of the bear’s image. Wendelin later teamed with Harry Rossell on a cartoon to create public awareness.
Smokey wasn’t always polyester and cotton. He was fur, flesh and blood, too. In 1950, an orphaned black bear cub was rescued from a wildfire in the Lincoln National Forest in New Mexico. He was nicknamed “Hotfoot Teddy,” which was later changed to “Smokey,” and he became the living symbol of Smokey fame.
Georgia had its own “Smokey.” A bear cub was saved from a fire in Twiggs County in the mid-1950s and kept in captivity in Metter. He made appearances on television shows. He was trained to drink a soda by wrapping his paws around the can.
Smokey once got loose on a visit to the forestry office in McRae and chased Millie around the room. She wasn’t too frightened, except that she was 9 months pregnant. Eventually, “Smokey” was donated to a zoo in Albany.
Although Frank retired in 1982 , he has continued to stay active. He helped start the Southern Forest World Museum & Environmental Center in Waycross, has served as state governor of Kiwanis and is an active member of Christ Episcopal Church in Macon.
If he ever strolls around the Mercer campus and sees all those “Be the Bear” logos, he would have to smile.
He has been the bear.