Partial to Home: Life lessons from Uncle Bunky

 

Birney Imes

 

 

You put a message in a bottle and toss it out to sea hoping the right beachcomber happens by.

 

Such was the case with last week's column about singer-songwriter Paul Thorn's longing for an Uncle Bunky crazy animal.

 

Paul, an avid collector of ephemera that relates to his childhood and music career, has been a lifelong fan of the late TV show host and children's advocate.

 

 

He said he especially liked how Uncle Bunky drew a stool for the unfortunate crazy creatures with legs of different lengths, e.g. one with an elephant's front legs and porcupine rear legs.

 

Uncle Bunky (Williams), who died in 2015 at age 83, hosted Fun Time, a live, wildly popular kids show on WCBI TV from 1958 until 1976. Paul's love for Bunky, beginning as a young child glued to the TV continued into adulthood.

 

While Fun Time may be a vivid memory for a generation of kids who either appeared on or watched the show, Bunky's humanitarian work with children after Fun Time may be more profound.

 

After his TV career Williams, through the Lowndes County Sheriff's Department, worked with abused and neglected children where his non-judgmental love for children stood him in good stead.

 

According to local historian Rufus Ward, Fun Time was the first integrated children's TV show in the state. (A 1970 commission forbade the state's public television station from airing Sesame Street at the show's inception because of its integrated cast.)

 

On the day the column ran, Dianne Patterson in an email wrote she had not one of Bunky's crazy animal drawings, but a whole tablet of them.

 

"How Uncle Bunky drew me so many is a touching story," she wrote. "I would be happy to share one with Paul Thorn."

 

Dianne and her husband Jim were for about 15 years part of the Coleman Children's Ministry, an outreach of First Baptist Church.

 

Once a month a group of volunteers from the church would provide a morning program of games, art projects, playtime, a Bible story and lunch for the children of the Coleman neighborhood in Sandfield.

 

Vibrant Church has continued that ministry in multiple locations, says Patterson.

 

Around 2012 church volunteers Dean and Peggy Green suggested the ministry invited Bunky to entertain and speak to the children. Dean, who had been an engineer at WCBI TV, was a longtime friend of Bunky's.

 

Patterson says she wondered how Bunky, then almost 80 years old, would be received by the children. He was just beginning to show signs of illness (cancer), she said.

 

She shouldn't have worried. The rapport was instant, she said.

 

"He loved it, and the kids loved him."

 

He warned the children about drugs and alcohol; stressed the importance of school and talked about identifying and responding to an abusive situation.

 

Not surprisingly, the children were forthcoming with Bunky, much more so than they have been with the church volunteers, Patterson said.

 

"He had this ease of conversation," she said. "He could start on a topic and work to another.

 

"He covered a lot of ground."

 

Easily the highlight of the Bunky visits, says Patterson, was the crazy animals.

 

"Goodness yes, they just loved it," she said. "They thought it was hilarious."

 

Eventually, the progression of cancer ended Bunky's monthly visits. Yet, he continued to contribute.

 

Occasionally he would pick up the pad now in Patterson's possession and draw crazy animals.

 

"He gave me a pad of drawings and told me to 'use them as needed,'" she said.

 

She's given drawings from the pad to children who seemed to be having difficulties. And now one to Paul Thorn.

 

"We all need to take a lesson of being generous," said Patterson. "It doesn't do any good to have something if you don't give it away."

 

 

 

Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.

 

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