Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

September 15, 2013

Birthplace of big names

Clifford-creator Norman Bridwell tops the list of Kokomo authors

By Mike Fletcher
Kokomo Tribune

---- — Kokomo has a ring to it, doesn’t it? Perhaps it’s how the word rolls off the tongue that led to its inclusion in so many artistic endeavors. Kokomo has played a role in numerous scripts, novels, and musical recordings. From its first appearance on the silver screen in a 1917 silent picture to low budget movies filmed in the city, Kokomo has been romanticized and ridiculed in multiple productions.

Not only has Kokomo inspired many movie lines, but it has produced several stars of film, literature and stage. From Misch Kohn, a master printmaker whose work hangs in more than 100 museums, to Strother Martin, who uttered the famous words “What we have here is … failure to communicate” Kokomo has produced talented authors, actors and artists.

The community’s rich history is steeped in culture, inspiring Aretha Franklin to croon about “That first snow in Kokomo,” and Normal Bridwell to create Clifford the Big Red Dog. Last week, the Kokomo Tribune took a look at mentions of Kokomo in movies and music. Today the focus is on books, plays and more famous people.

Norman Bridwell’s tale of a larger than life dog not only earned him the honor of being in the Howard County Hall of Legends, it made him one of Kokomo’s most famous authors.

Born and raised in Kokomo, Bridwell published his popular book "Clifford The Big Red Dog" in 1963.

The 1945 Kokomo High School graduate went on to write hundreds of books centering around the adventures of a dog that grew to be more than 25 feet tall. There are over 44 million copies of his books in print and many of his stories are translated into other languages.

While several Kokomo residents have written books, Bridwell's is the most recognized, said Dave Broman, executive director of the Howard County Historical Society.

"It's beyond a doubt the most famous," he said.

Strolling through the Kokomo/Howard County Public Library, you can find Bridwell's books and others either authored by Kokomo residents or referencing Kokomo in the title.

Popular talk show and radio host, Tavis Smiley, who grew up in the Kokomo area, authored 14 books including the book he edited titled "The Covenant with Black America," which became the first nonfiction book by a black-owned publisher to reach No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list for paperback nonfiction.

Another one of Smiley's books to hit the charts was “What I Know For Sure: My Story of Growing Up in America.” That memoir was No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list and included a great deal of his upbringing in the Kokomo area.

Smiley, who was raised as one of 10 children in a trailer in Bunker Hill, has risen to become one of the nation’s leading black journalists. He has worked for “BET Tonight,” National Public Radio, and currently hosts late night television talk show “Tavis Smiley” for the Public Broadcasting System and “The Tavis Smiley Show,” which is distributed by Public Radio International.

In 2009, Time Magazine named Smiley one of “The World’s Most Influential People.”

Kokomo native Bob Knowling outlined his years growing up in Kokomo in the 1960s in his autobiography "You Can Get There From Here, My Journey from Struggle to Success."

Knowling, the chairman of Eagles Landing Partners, a consulting firm, grew up in Kokomo as one of 13 children shuttling between his divorced parents' houses surrounded by crime, drugs and racism.

Like Bridwell, Knowling, a successful businessman, was named to the Howard County Hall of Legends.

Bridwell was not alone in writing children's books. Kokomo's Othello Bach authored "Whoever heard of a Fird" about a part bird part fish looking for a herd of fird.

Sycamore Elementary School Teacher Jim McCarter used his talents to pen a comic book entitled "Pulverized, Density and Dinosaurs." The 25-page comic book's hero is a paleontologist who runs a dinosaur museum and a summer dinosaur dig for kids.

Other local authors focused on the history of Kokomo and Howard County in their books.

The following are several examples:

• "Kokomo, Indiana" by Thomas D. Hamilton

• "Kokomo, Indiana" by Jesse Russell

• "Howard County History in the Mail" written by the Howard County Historical Society and the Kokomo Tribune

• "Kokomo-Howard County Sesquintennial Commemorative Book" by Fred Odiet

• "Howard County A Pictorial History" by Ned Booher

• "Russiaville and the Civil War" by Kent A. Smith

• "Tree Stump Tombstones, A Field Guide to Rustic Funerary Art in Indiana" by Susanne S. Ridlen.

Other writers focused on specific historical events in Kokomo, including Dean W. Hockney's "Kats with a K, The 100-year History of Kokomo High School Boy's Basketball", and a book about the 1965 Palm Sunday tornado, "Russiaville Chronicles Volume IX Special Edition."

Several books found at the library focus on Kokomo's automobile heritage including Dave Griffey's "Beyond the Pioneer: The Impact of America's First Mechanically Successful Automobile" and "Haynes-Apperson and America's First Practical Automobile: A History by W.C. Madden."

Barnes & Noble's website lists other books referencing the name Kokomo, but are not about the City of Firsts.

"Key Kokomo" by William S. Beatty Jr., a paperback is set in a tropical island in the Florida Keys; and "Kokomo Joe", a book about the first Japanese American jockey by John Christgau, are a few examples.

There's also a number of children's bedtime stories with the main character named Kokomo.

"Kokomo's Halloween Adventure" and "Kokomo Superhero" are among a series of children's bedtime stories by Dr. Joel Feder. They are captivating stories of a young boy who displays good manners at home and interacts well with his friends. The stories teach the value of friendship and the power of cooperation, according to the Barnes & Noble website.

Retired Kokomo Police Officer Tom Kelley used his experiences from his days at Grissom to pen the novel "Guardmount." A 1964 bomber crash at Grissom Air Force Base, north of Kokomo, sets the background for the novel, which Kelley described as a humorous crime drama.

Howard County Sheriff Deputy Richard Ferguson co-authored "They Were Too Drunk with Firewater and Fear," a historical novel about the War of 1812 in Indiana, particularly the battle known as Spur's Defeat.

If you're into real crime stories, Anita Wooldridge’s real-life experience of being abducted in 1998 titled "Eight Days In Darkness," is an interesting read.

Wooldridge’s book describes her abduction by 42-year-old Victor Thomas Steele from her parent's home in southeastern Howard County in broad daylight. Wooldridge was driven to LaCrosse, Wis., where for eight days, she was repeatedly sexually assaulted and kept in a metal box. The rape, abuse and captivity she survived before her dramatic rescue left her with a head full of horrifying memories she details in the book.

The book chronicles the abduction from her home, the FBI and Kokomo police chase across state lines to find her, and finally her homecoming and recovery. Wooldridge now serves as a court-appointed special advocate for abused children and as a Big Brothers, Big Sisters volunteer. She also travels around the country speaking at conferences and educating law enforcement agencies on the tactics used in her case.

"The Kokomo Railroad" by Susan Giffin is another crime book. It chronicles the uncompromising struggle to gain the release of Charles Edward Lockert from prison after he was railroaded through the Indiana criminal justice system, illegally incarcerated for almost 30 years, and held unjustly on parole for 10 years. This book delivers in detail the freedom team's strategy and serves as inspiration for all who seek justice.