He is unsteady on his feet and the left hand that holds the Sharpie trembles noticeably as he draws his cartoon images.
But his spirit remains young. He smiles. He makes silly faces. He gently teases the children as they fidget in the seat next to him, inventing the animals his pen then creates on his sketchbook.
“Here, this last month, he seems like his old self,” says Wayne Nichols, a friend who has accompanied Robert “Uncle Bunky” Williams here to Camp Rising Sun, a week-long camp for children ages 6-16 who have or have had cancer.
On Thursday, Uncle Bunky made his 17th visit to Camp Rising Sun.
It will likely be his last.
He has cancer. He made the decision about a month ago not to receive treatment.
“I don’t have all that long, a few months. Maybe a year, at most,” Uncle Bunky says with no hint of emotion. “I’m 82. I have cancer. I think it’s time to give it up.”
But not just yet. There are still animals to create.
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The animal images he has been drawing for five decades would be called “mash-ups” today — a lion’s head, an alligator’s body, the front legs of a bird, the back legs of an elephant, a tiger’s tail — any concoction a child’s mind can create.
Some of the children know exactly what combinations they want and spill them out faster than Uncle Bunky can commit them to the page. Others are less certain and seem grateful for Uncle Bunky’s suggestions. “How about a bird’s body?” he offers. The child smiles and nods approval.
In a matter of seconds, a new life-form has been produced on the page, complete with Uncle’s Bunky’s sweeping signature.
The line moves up a spot.
“Now, what kind of head should I draw?” Uncle Bunky begins as the next child slides into the chair.
There are 41 campers this year, but Uncle Bunky will make far more drawings than that. Adult campers and staff have their turns, too, because it is impossible not to be a kid when Uncle Bunky is sitting there with his Sharpie and sketchbook.
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“I’m going to call her Scout,” 11-year-old Jamie Hutchinson says as she shows off her Uncle Bunky original, which features an animal with a llama’s head, a horse’s body, the front feet of a lion, the back feet of an owl and the tail of a poodle.
Jamie said she had not heard of Uncle Bunky until coming to camp. “But my dad told me about him,” she says. “He said he was on his TV show when he was in second grade.”
That is a common story. It seems almost as if making an appearance on Uncle Bunky’s TV show was a rite of passage for anyone who grew up in the Golden Triangle in that era.
In fact, there is a name for the first children who appeared on Fun Time With Uncle Bunky — retirees.
From 1958 until 1976, Fun Time on WCBI TV was a daily afternoon ritual for children throughout the Golden Triangle. The main feature of the show was Uncle Bunky drawing his cartoons for the dozen or so kids in the studio audience.
“I would go around to each child,” he explained, “and ask him a question, like, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ He might say, ‘A fireman,’ so I would draw a picture of him in a fireman’s uniform. Sometimes, I would ask about their pets and draw those.”
One day, a particularly imaginative child asked for a picture of an animal with a camel’s head and a horse’s body.
The rest, as they say, is history.
“We got tons of mail after that show,” he said. “It took off.”
So, for 57 years now, Uncle Bunky has been making animals that can only exist in the fertile imagination of a child. It has become his trademark, as if God made the duck-billed platypus and then said, “OK, Uncle Bunky, you can take it from here.”
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An hour later, after the last animal has been imagined and the sketchbook has been put away, Uncle Bunky sits at a table, nibbling on a lunch of fried fish and french-fries. He looks ahead to the end with surprising enthusiasm.
“What I want to do, the last thing I want to do, is start a foundation to help abused children,” he says, a cause he embraced during 20 years with the Lowndes County Sheriff’s Department, much of which was spent as an investigator working with abused and neglected children. “We have foundations for everything else. We should have one for abused children. That’s what I want.”
Uncle Bunky has always been an easy mark for kids, especially kids who have had to face tough circumstances – kids with cancer. Kids who have been neglected or abused. Kids of all kinds and colors. Kids who might be considered “different.”
In 1970, the state’s first public television station initially refused to carry “Sesame Street” because the show featured an integrated cast. By then, black children had been on Fun Time for years. Uncle Bunky made sure of it, despite some early objections.
“I got a couple of calls complaining about it,” he said. “I just ignored them.”
Suddenly, you begin to wonder if his animal creations were really an accident after all. Perhaps there is something allegorical about these “different” animals.
“Yes,” he says, leaning in, his eyes bright. “Like these animals, all of us are different, too, and you know what? It’s OK to be different. It’s fun to be different. On the outside, all of us are different. But on the inside, in our hearts, we’re all the same.”
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is email@example.com.
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