Smokey Bear Gets Burned After Quip Sparks Controversy
For years, Smokey Bear has been a fixture at the Ohio State Fair. Volunteers take 45-minute shifts as the voice of the 14-foot manikin, reminding passersby about fire safety amid some lighthearted banter with the crowds. But Smokey learned that if he strays too far from the script, it's the bear that gets burned.
Paul Hammock, a 65-year-old retired teacher with a pitch-perfect Smokey timbre, has been volunteering for seven years as the bear's vocal cords. Last Friday, Ohio's Sen. Robert Portman, a newly minted-member of Congress' debt-reduction "super committee," paid a visit to the fair. Hammock decided to avoid politics and keep the tone light.
It was nearing Smokey's 67th birthday, so Hammock quipped that he managed to stay youthful-looking by dying his gray hairs.
"That's a little trick you might want to try," he told the 56-year-old Portman.
A few hours later Hammock received a call from the coordinator of volunteers at the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. Smokey had offended the Republican senator, Hammock was told, so his vocal talents would no longer be needed.
Somebody who had heard the remark, Hammock said, "obviously went off the deep end with it."
Soon after, Portman was in The Columbus Dispatch office, and Hammock's friend and Dispatch columnist Joe Blundo confronted Ohio's junior senator.
He hadn't been insulted, Portman insisted. He thought the joke was funny and had in no way urged officials to dismiss Hammock from his post.
The Ohio DPR backpedaled. A spokesman told Blundo that Hammock hadn't been fired because the comment was offensive, but simply because it was off the script. Smokey is meant to talk about forest fire prevention, and that's it. Certainly no jokes about people's looks.
"Of course, Smokey jokes about everything in the universe," Hammock told AOL Jobs. "There's no script. That was just a smokescreen."
The DPR told the Dispatch that it was open to Hammock returning next year, but Hammock hasn't yet had that confirmed.
But he hopes it's true.
"I feel bad for the Department of Natural Resources," he said. "I love those people. I love that part of the fair."
And so do all the kids, who every August get the chance to learn from Hammock about forest fire prevention, as well as how to take a joke.