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This Week’s LION: Happy Birthday, Smokey Bear!

“Everyone loves you, Smokey!” So exclaimed a third-grade pupil at the Montgomery Area Elementary School, shortly after her class had its picture taken with the world’s most famous bear at a fire-prevention presentation by the Clinton Twp. Volunteer Fire Company. Each of the students were moving away after their picture, preparing for the next class to get their photo made and telling Smokey one by one that they loved him. The one girl summed it all it — we all love Smokey Bear.

It is Smokey’s 75th birthday this year, and an argument could be made that after Santa Claus, he might be the most well-recognized icon in American culture. The birthday of “Smokey Bear” is considered to be when the debut poster was released on August 9, 1944, illustrated by Albert Staehle. He looks much as he does today, wearing jeans and the campaign (drill instructor) hat.

Believe it or not, the first ‘fire prevention’ animal was Bambi. Yes, the Disney Bambi. Walt Disney allowed the lovable white-tailed deer to appear in fire prevention public service campaigns in 1942. But Disney only permitted the image for one year, and in 1944 the Cooperative Forest Fire Prevention Campaign decided to use a bear.

What really caused the iconic image and slogan to take off was an actual bear cub found in 1950 in a wildfire in the Lincoln National Forest in New Mexico. The poor creature had climbed a tree to escape the blaze, but his paws and hind legs had been badly burned. He was nursed back to health, and after Life magazine did a feature on the little bear cub, he became a national celebrity. Indeed, he was flown to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., where he lived for 26 years, receiving millions of visitors, and so many letters, as many as 13,000 a week, the post office had to give him his own zip code! He died on November 9, 1976, and his remains were taken back to his home in New Mexico, where there is now a Smokey Bear Historical Park located in Capitan, NM, close to where he was originally found.

Yet even though the physical Smokey is gone, his message lives on. According to the Ad Council, the Smokey Bear symbol and his message are recognized in the United States by 95 percent of adults and 77 percent of children. And adults indeed appear to love him as much as the kids.

Full disclosure here, my childhood hero was Smokey Bear. When I was three years old, my parents gave me a Smokey stuffed animal, and he became my best friend. My earliest pictures show me holding Smokey. I played with Smokey, slept with Smokey, and once tried to bathe Smokey. Unfortunately, he was never the same after that, and my mother told me that Smokey had to go “bye-bye.”

With a broken heart for decades, I longed to have Smokey back. My dream came true in 2016 when I had the opportunity to “become” Smokey Bear for a presentation on Fire Prevention with the Clinton Township Fire Company at the Montgomery Area Elementary School. Seeing the reaction of the children when they saw Smokey was overwhelming. It was so much fun; I continued to do it every year since. The recent outing on October 10th was the same as the past, exhausting, and exhilarating at the same.

Smokey Bear wants to remind us that everyone should have smoke alarms in every place where people sleep in the home (which might include recliners!), to replace the batteries twice a year (daylight savings time is a good reminder), and ensure that children know what to do in the event of a home fire. They should know to keep low, especially when there is smoke in the home, have two exit paths of escaping from the home or apartment, and assemble at a pre-arranged meeting point a safe distance from the home or apartment building.

And one last note — as a ‘bearer’ of Smokey’s legacy, I want to clarify that his official name is Smokey Bear, with no middle name “the.” That was added by two songwriters to a popular song in 1952 to keep the song’s rhythm, and it just stuck. What has also stuck is his enduring image — one of the best-known marketing images in American history — a symbol that reminds us of our personal responsibility for fire safety: happy 75th Birthday, Smokey Bear.

Larry Stout welcomes your comments or input. He can be reached by email at

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