Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

October 18, 2012

Clifford turns 50

For the Kokomo Tribune

— Kokomo is known for three things: Stoplights, auto jobs ... and a certain gentlemen’s club. But ask someone outside the community about its famous offspring?

Movie buffs can recall the line from “Cool Hand Luke,” “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.” Most don’t know the actor who delivered it, Strother Martin, was born here.

Rabid Indiana University basketball fans can tell you two-time All-American Jimmy Rayl holds the school’s single-game scoring record – 56 points. There might be a few who don’t know Kokomo is his hometown and still is.

But ask anyone – a parent, a grandparent, a teacher, a school kid – if they’ve heard of Clifford the Big Red Dog? All know him. He’s as famous as the Cat in the Hat.

And Clifford was born here – right on Jefferson Street. As a boy, Kokomo native Norman Bridwell made up characters as he walked to and from school along that road. One of those characters became Clifford.

“Clifford the Big Red Dog,” Bridwell’s first book, was published in 1962 – the same year Rayl hung 56 points on Minnesota. Bridwell, who graduated from Kokomo High School in 1945, was given a $1,000 advance for the book and $800 for the illustrations.

Since then, Bridwell has written more than 100 Clifford books. And this year, the literary world is celebrating 50 years of tall tales of one very large, red dog.

There are hints of Kokomo in Bridwell’s stories. The Sweet Book Store, where he worked in high school, is mentioned a few times. And “Clifford’s Tricks” is dedicated to Kokomo’s Eric Gabriel, whose family were friends of the Bridwells.

Though Bridwell says he never intended to convey messages with Clifford, small-town values – Kokomo’s values – have been shared with children around the globe for half a century now.

In 2009, the Kokomo-Howard County Public Library threw a party for Bridwell on his 81st birthday. This year, it’s his dog’s turn for attention.

Happy anniversary, Clifford. Thanks for reminding our children to try doing the right thing.