Smokey at Midlife

updated 08/22/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/22/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

LOOK AT ALL THOSE 50TH BIRTHDAYS AND ANNIVERSAries. D-Day. The International Monetary Fund. Marvin Hamlisch. And, of course, Smokey Bear. But unlike many other 50-year-olds, Smokey is not contemplating a midlife career change. He is still doing just what he was born to do—helping prevent forest fires.

That's fine with Rudy Wendelin—keeper of Smokey's, er, flame for the past 48 years. "People call me Smokey's creator," says Wendelin, 84, "but that's not right. I'm his caretaker." Smokey Bear (never Smokey the Bear) first appeared in August 1944 in a poster drawn for a U.S. Forest Service campaign by Albert Staehle, who died at 74 in 1974. In 1946, Wendelin, a Kansas-born draftsman and illustrator, was given the job of making the bare-chested, blue-jeaned bear a little friendlier. He declawed Smokey and shortened his nose "so he wouldn't look so stern."

Wendelin went on to render Smokey thousands of times, for everything from cartoons to statuettes to postage stamps. "I always start with the nose," he says, "because it's right in the center." After Smokey was licensed in 1952, Wendelin became responsible for approving Smokey merchandise.

At the height of Smokey's popularity, there was even a real live Smokey, a bear cub who had been burned in a forest fire in New Mexico in 1950 and was given to the National Zoo in Washington. At his death in 1976, he was succeeded by Little Smokey, who died in 1990.

Although Wendelin officially retired in 1973, he continues to draw Smokey posters and calendars in his Smokey-filled Arlington, Va., studio. "I'm always on call," he says. Between those official duties and a steady stream of mail (mainly requests for sketches), Wendelin has little time for watercolor painting, his true passion. But, as he says, "I could never leave Smokey behind. I just happen to be one of his human agents. He's still down the hall somewhere, directing the whole operation. We all work for him."

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