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Ask Rufus: The irrepressible Uncle Bunky

 

Children’s groups such as these Brownies from Aberdeen often appeared on Uncle Bunky’s Fun Time television program where they were entertained by his drawings of crazy animals.

Children’s groups such as these Brownies from Aberdeen often appeared on Uncle Bunky’s Fun Time television program where they were entertained by his drawings of crazy animals. Photo by: Drawing by Uncle Bunky/courtesy of Sharon Falkner

 

Harper Hoffman of Alexandria, Virginia, watches in awe as Uncle Bunky draws a crazy animal. Though no longer a television fixture, Uncle Bunky retains his gift of entertaining and inspiring children.

 

Rufus Ward

 

Last week my granddaughter who lives in Virginia visited Columbus. While here I took her to experience those delightful "crazy animals" from the hand of Robert Williams, the pioneering icon of children's television known far and wide as Uncle Bunky. Bunky, whose nickname came from a 1930s comic strip character, has since the 1950s both entertained and helped thousands of children. In the late 1950s Bunky even turned down a job offer from Walt Disney Studios as he felt his calling was helping children in his hometown. 

 

It is as the host of the long running Fun Time television show that Bunky is most often associated. Fun Time ran on WCBI in Columbus from 1958 to 1976 and on WVSB, then in West Point, from 1985 into the early 1990s.The show was extremely popular with Brownie and Cub Scouts and for birthday parties. Often groups would have to book an appearance on the show months in advance. 

 

However, Bunky has always been active wherever and whenever he could help children in need. He has for years entertained countless children who were attending Camp Rising Sun, a camp for children suffering from catastrophic illnesses. He not only treated the children to crazy animals but has also a been a first-class prankster. There is even one story about someone being handcuffed to a flag pole there. 

 

Bunky went to work for the WCBI Television in Columbus in 1958. Those early days found a fun-loving crew at the station. The old station in the 1950s was located northeast of Columbus next to a pasture full of goats. On one occasion Bunky and some other staff decided to play a joke on Evan Lewis, the evening news anchor. 

 

Lewis read the news sitting behind a hollow desk and always wanted his newscast to go by the book. Bunky and a couple of other employees opened the back door of the studio and before the newscast laid a trail of crackers from the goat's pasture gate through the studio door to under Lewis' desk. As soon as Lewis started the evening newscast the pasture gate was opened. Soon Lewis was surrounded by goats seeking more crackers, a sight home viewers could not see. 

 

On another occasion a circus came to Columbus and as a promotion elephants were brought into the station's studio. They were to be televised live inside the station. The huge elephants had eaten and also consumed a large amount of water. I will leave to the imagination the gifts they left on the studio floor. 

 

Sometimes it was Bunky who was on the receiving end. At a sports banquet he was once seated next to Bear Bryant. After the main course plates of delicious lemon pie were served. The Bear ate his and turned to Bunky lecturing him on how unhealthy and fattening the pie was. When Bunky said maybe he would pass on eating it, Bear said good and took Bunky's pie and ate it. 

 

Bunky's trademark was the crazy animals he would draw. He could entertain a studio full of children by drawing any combination of animals they could dream up. An alligator's head with an elephant's body, a duck's feet and a fish's tail might be the request and in the blink of an eye the animal would be drawn. I don't recall anyone ever stumping him. 

 

Fun Time was on the air in the middle of the civil rights struggle. Beginning in the early to mid 1960s black and white children both appeared on Fun Time. It is a tribute to Bunky that the show was not only the first integrated children's TV show in northeast Mississippi but one of the first if not the first in the entire state. 

 

Visiting with Bunky the other day, I asked him what was his most memorable show on Fun Time. He laughed and with a twinkle in his eye told of the little girl he interviewed live on TV and whose mother was standing behind the camera with other mothers. He asked the girl what the funniest thing was she had ever seen. She quickly said it was the time she saw her mommy and daddy without any clothes on jumping up and down on their bed. The girl's mother buried her face in her hands. The other children's mothers started laughing loudly while patting her on the back. Bunky also said that it was not unusual for him to ask a child what they wanted to be when they grew up and the response to be, "I need to go potty." 

 

After spending decades as a children's television show host and drawing crazy animals he became an investigator with the Lowndes County Sheriff's Department where he handled mostly drug, child abuse and neglect cases. District Attorney Forrest Allgood recalls that before Bunky retired from law enforcement he liked having Bunky testify in trials. The people on a jury always remembered him from Fun Time and he would "have them eating out of his hand." They had faith in him and trusted him. Even today Bunky still gets calls from people who when they were children had their lives saved or turned around by him. 

 

And when my granddaughter, Harper, arrived at Bunky's she was a little unsure about things. It was not long, though, before she was sitting next to Uncle Bunky in awe of his drawings. He has lost none of his magic. Harper was mesmerized by Bunky effortlessly drawing any animal she could name and his turning numbers into animals. She makes the third generation in my family that he has entertained. 

 

As to Uncle Bunky's television legacy, Tim Hollis' book, "Hi There Boys and Girls," traces the history of America's local children's television programs. Hollis' history of children's programs in Mississippi includes more about Uncle Bunky than all the other children's television programs in Mississippi combined.

 

Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at rufushistory@aol.com.

 

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