Almost everyone has seen Smokey the Bear in an ad campaign at one time or another, but former Wylie teacher Jimmy Pickins saw the real thing.
As a child, Pickins helped care for the real, live Smokey the Bear, when Smokey was just a tiny bear cub recovering from the burns that made him a national star.
Pickens grew up in New Mexico where his father was assistant game warden for the New Mexico Fish and Game Department. Whenever an animal was hurt or needed fostering, the state turned to Homer Pickens and his family.
“We were blessed with every wild animal that got picked up across the state,” Jimmy Pickens said. “We never got paid for it. We just took care of the animals.”
In June of 1950, a forest fire burned through the Lincoln National Forest in the Capitan Mountains near Roswell. More than 17,000 acres were burned, and some soldiers who were helping fight the fire found a very young bear cub clinging to a blackened tree.
“His fur was singed, and his feet were all singed,” Pickens said. “He had blisters on his feet.”
The soldiers rescued him, and Ray Bell from the fish and game department flew the cub to Santa Fe, where he and Homer Pickens took the bear to a veterinarian for treatment. The cub went to live with the Bells and then the Pickins while it was recovering.
“I took care of him every day,” Pickens remembers. “I cleaned out the cage and played with him.”
Homer Pickens always wore gloves when dealing with the bear, a lesson that young Jimmy would also learn.
“Smokey would bite you for no reason at all,” Pickens said. “He was a wild animal. It only took Smokey to bite me a couple of times before I said, ‘That’s enough.’ ”
In 1944, the Forest Service had started the concept of Smokey the Forest Fire Bear as a cartoon character. Homer Pickens told some of his Forest Service connections about the young cub and an idea was hatched.
“They said this is perfect. We will make him the living Smokey,” Pickens said.
The idea was a big hit and plans were made to send the cub to Washington, D.C., where he would become Smokey the Bear.
“The Piper Company sent a brand new Piper Cub Plane to Santa Fe to fly Smokey to Washington,” Pickens said. “Dad went as his companion.”
Smokey was presented to the Boys and Girls Scouts in a ceremony in Washington, and then he was taken to live in the National Zoo.
“Smokey was so popular, he was getting so much mail, they had to give him his own zip code,” Pickens said. “He never had a good disposition. He was sort of grumpy. I think it was being a star. They tried to breed him to have a Smokey Junior, but he wouldn’t have anything to do with it.”
Pickens never saw the bear again, although his father did.
“Every time dad went to Washington, they would have some ceremony,” he said. “My brother worked in Washington, and he saw him.”
Smokey lived in the Zoo as Smokey the Bear until 1976, when he died.
“He lived a lot longer than bears live in the wild,” Pickens said. “He was the leading draw at the zoo for all the years he was there.”
When Smokey died, he was returned to New Mexico, where he was buried near Capitan in what is now Smokey Bear Historical Park.
Pickens grew up, attended college and joined the Air Force. He found his way to Abilene as the navigator on a C-130.
“We fell in love with this place,” he said of Abilene. “Our two-year stay has turned into 37 years.”
After he left the Air Force, he decided to put his education degree to use as a teacher. His degree was in English and history, so he went to ACU to become qualified to teach science.
He applied to schools throughout the area, and Wylie’s superintendent at the time, Stanley Whisenhunt, was the first to call. The AISD called later that same afternoon, but Pickens was already a Wylie Bulldog.
He ended up teaching 8th grade science at Wylie for 24 years.
“I was very pleased to go to Wylie,” he said. “I was there when Wylie was just a little community.”
He retired from Wylie eight years ago at the age of 72.
Last year, Pickens stopped by Smokey Bear Historical Park to visit Smokey’s grave. Smokey’s story is posted on a plaque at the site. It also is told in the pages of Homer Pickens’ autobiography, Tracks Across New Mexico, and in a comic book.
And of course, Jimmy Pickens is always happy to tell the story and show the memorabilia he inherited from his father.
Pickens said he has fond memories of growing up with plenty of wild foster animals – from skunks to mountain lion cubs to one little burned bear cub.
“We were quite fortunate to grow up in that environment,” Pickens said. “We basically lived in the mountains, and it was a great childhood.”