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Doug Clark: Smokey Bear getting long in the tooth, but still popular

Doug Clark,columnist

Drove to Coeur d’Alene on Tuesday to reconnect with a childhood pal.

He’s none other than that jeans-and-hat-clad symbol who likes to say, “Only You Can Prevent Wildfires.”

Smokey The Bear.

Jack Winchell looked at me like I’d just belched in church.

“It’s not ‘THE’ bear,” he scolded with a grin. “After all, you don’t say Santa THE Claus or Easter THE Bunny.”

The 64-year-old surveyed the crowded conference room. “These people are purists,” he added with a dramatic arm sweep. “In the Smokey Bear world, this is a big deal.”

I stand corrected, Jack. I certainly wouldn’t want a slip of THE tongue to get me booted out of my first convention of the national Smokey Bear Association.

Winchell, the group’s likable outgoing president, said the SBA meets every two years. The posh Coeur d’Alene Resort is the site for this installment.

Heck, I didn’t even know there was a Smokey Bear Association. Not until the emailed invitation arrived the other day.

Conventioneers invited the media and public to join them for a Tuesday celebration of the famed bruin’s 72nd birthday.

They offered free cake, entertainment for kids plus plenty of Smokey-related keepsakes for sale.

The convention is also a reunion of sorts for Winchell, who called Coeur d’Alene home until 1965, when his family migrated to Oregon.

“We grew up when life was simple,” he said.

We certainly did. Members of my black-and-white TV generation had a fraction of the distractions that keep today’s text-happy youngsters so occupied.

That’s one explanation for how a U.S. Forest Service mascot turned into such a huge cultural icon.

How huge? My Internet sleuthing tells me that 95 percent of adults and 77 percent of kids recognize Smokey Bear.

The release of a 1952 theme song helped boost popularity too, although the lyrics are also blamed for the aforementioned confusion that surrounds Smokey’s name.

The story goes that songwriters Steve Nelson and Jack Rollins couldn’t make the rhythm work without inserting that pesky “THE” between Smokey and Bear.

As in …

“Smokey the Bear. Smokey the Bear. Prowlin’ and a growlin’ and a sniffin’ the air …”

OK, so it’s not quite “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”

But the ditty was catchy enough to stick like tar in the synapses of a legion of adolescents.

“All we ask is for Smokey to be put in a positive light,” said Winchell.

No problem. Think back to the many wildfires of last summer. Smokey’s message is obviously just as vital today as it ever was.

“Preserve Smokey’s past, promote his present and protect his future.” That’s the mission statement of the Smokey Bear Association.

Collect a ton of Smokey-related merchandise appears to be pretty important, too.

Over the decades, the federal government-owned trademark has been put on myriad products like games, ashtrays, pins, plush toys, a grooming kit for girls that contained a mirror, comb and brush, posters, and even a limited edition 25-pound bear that remained unsold despite a $10,000 offer from a Japanese collector.

Carolyn Ramos, a 78-year-old SBA member from California, told me she drives a Jeep with a license plate that reads: SMKY-BRS1.

She said she became obsessed with Smokey when daughter, Diane, landed a job with the California Department of Forestry.

Back home, Ramos said she has a Smokey room filled “wall to wall, ceiling to floor” with bear items. She even “took off the closet door so we could display more.”

Still, Smokey Bear aficionados represent a minuscule part of the overall collecting world. According to Winchell, the SBA has about 160 members nationwide with 50 or so attending this event.

Nevada resident Jim Van Meter, the organization’s colorful founder, has a Smokey shoulder tattoo and the song as his ringtone.

“I’m a kid at heart,” said the 75-year-old.

I didn’t escape without buying a Smokey hand puppet for baby Ronan, my granddaughter.

I also couldn’t leave without buying a Snuffit, a small plastic Smokey Bear head that has a magnet on the base to let it stick to the dashboard of your car or truck.

The Snuffit also has a convenient hole in its familiar wide-brimmed hat that is called a campaign hat, I learned. This lets you extinguish your cigarette, one coffin nail at a time.

The Snuffit will come in mighty handy if cars with metal dashboards ever make a comeback and I decide to take up smoking.

As Smokey would say, one can never be too careful when it comes to dealing with flame.

Doug Clark is a columnist for The Spokesman-Review. He can be reached at (509) 459-5432 or by email at dougc@spokesman.com.