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Drawn into history: Gainesville cartoonist to continue legacy of ‘Mark Trail’ comic

POSTED: March 9, 2014 1:00 a.m.

Jack Elrod spent much of his childhood roaming the rivers and woods around Gainesville and North Georgia.

So much so he sometimes would let the outdoors get in the way of school. But as often as he could find time, Jack, with such pals as Ed Dunlap Jr. and Jack McKibbon, would hunt and fish along the Chattahoochee River, especially near the present American Legion, or hike in the mountains. He and his friends would pilfer watermelons from a farm upstream and float them down Little River to their campsite.

All of that fostered his lifelong love of the outdoors, which also shaped his career as a cartoonist. It helped, too, that his scoutmaster was Ed Dodd, creator of “Mark Trail” and naturally an avid outdoorsman.

Elrod, who inherited the Mark Trail comic strip from Dodd, after working with him for years, is parking his pen and passing on the drawing of the comic to James Allen, who will be the third Gainesvillian to take on the task. Dodd lived in Gainesville and retired here after turning over the strip to Elrod, a Gainesville native.

Elrod’s interest in art began as a child, reading the funnies and copying comic strips such as “Flash Gordon.” He graduated from Gainesville High School in 1942, served as a weatherman in the U.S. Navy during World War II, then attended art school. Dodd created the comic strip in 1946, and Elrod joined him in 1950. That also was the year he married Brenau College student Mary Anne Candee.

Tom Hill, who had worked on the strip with Dodd 31 years, died in 1978, the same year Dodd retired, leaving the fate of “Mark Trail” to Elrod, who steered the fictitious outdoorsman through daily adventures until his retirement this month.

Elrod also drew another comic, “The Ryatts,” for 30 years until he retired it in 1994. It’s a grind to meet the deadlines for one strip, let alone two at one time. The artist gave priority to “Mark Trail,” usually spending at least eight hours a day on it, then working at night on “The Ryatts,” a funny that featured the foibles of a family much like his own, which included four children.

He would work seven days a week 10 weeks ahead on “Mark Trail” in his studio downstairs in his Sandy Springs home, where he and his wife lived for four decades. She died three years ago.

Elrod would get ahead to take vacations and squeezed in enough breaks to do yard work and win some tennis trophies.
If drawing comic strips wasn’t enough, Elrod engaged in numerous other activities, most related to his art. He has drawn numerous pieces featuring Mark Trail for such organizations as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. Forest Service. These usually were educational posters, brochures or booklets that promoted conservation. Interested in getting children hooked on conservation, Elrod produced coloring books that were distributed by various organizations.

Jim Sorenson, retired from the U.S. Forest Service, worked with Elrod for years on educational projects, including the 50th anniversary of Smokey the Bear.

“That was the beginning of a long fruitful relationship,” he said. “He is a fine person, always upbeat, has something good to say about you, and I never heard a foul word from him.”

Elrod produced several significant projects for the foresters, Sorenson said. He and Alan Dozier, retired from the Georgia Forestry Commission, meet Elrod for lunch regularly.

The walls of Elrod’s studio are covered with numerous awards he has received from NOAA and other agencies for which he worked. The late President Ronald Reagan and former President Bill Clinton are among dignitaries who have recognized his work during events in the nation’s capital.

The U.S. Department of Interior presented him a “Take Pride in America” award on the White House lawn, and he earned the Outstanding Forestry Journalism Award from the Society of American Foresters.

Elrod also has been a judge for the prestigious duck stamp program, in which artists compete to design the stamps, which are sold to raise money for conservation.

“Mark Trail” came along just about the time Americans were getting interested in protecting the environment, Elrod said. Until the harmful effects of pollution were brought out, few were concerned with conservation, he said.

The comic strip continues to stress conservation through the story lines of Mark Trail. Other characters include his wife Cherry, adopted son Rusty, Cherry’s father Doc Davis and faithful St. Bernard Andy.

Cherry and Mark were an item 47 years before they finally married. It was taboo, however, Elrod, said, to ever draw them together in the woods. It was OK, though, after they honeymooned on the Appalachian Trail and the aptly named Mark Trail Wilderness, 16,400 acres in the Chattahoochee National Forest in White, Union and Towns counties that was created by Congress in 1996.

Their marriage was a memorable occasion in the life of the comic strip, especially to one reader who had been asking why they didn’t marry since they were always together. It almost didn’t happen as Cherry in one story was engaged to a park ranger.

Elrod says the adoption of young Rusty from an abusive home situation also was a highlight.

Who is Mark Trail? “He’s somebody you’d like to be,” Elrod says. An outdoors writer, he has the freedom to randomly rove the woods and streams just as Elrod did in his youth.

One reader wrote Elrod to ask how Mark Trail made a living, other than writing for a magazine, as he seemed to be prone to wandering all over the outdoors all the time. While Mark is constantly in trouble during his never-ending adventures, Andy the dog frequently comes to his rescue. When Andy got into trouble, Elrod says that’s when he got the most mail from readers.

One reader admonished the artist after he drew a story that featured river rafters who weren’t wearing life jackets. Elrod was sure to include life jackets for his characters in future stories.

Elrod is proud of the educational aspects of the comic. The Sunday page is devoted to some conservation or wildlife lesson and doesn’t continue the storyline of the daily strip. He says conservationists have told him they got their interest in the field as children sitting on their fathers’ laps while they read “Mark Trail” to them. He wishes more parents would do the same today instead of relying on electronic gadgets to keep their children entertained.

So what will Jack Elrod do in retirement after a 63-year routine of daily deadlines with his comic strip?

“Just sit around smiling,” he said, admitting that he is tired and ready to let go of Mark Trail and friends. “I don’t miss the deadlines.”

Hospitalized three times with various ailments in the past few months, Elrod already had turned the bulk of the work over to James Allen. He and Allen continue to confer on the strip every couple of weeks.

Elrod lunches with friends, many of whom he met through his artwork. He also wants to spend more time with his four children, eight grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

He will celebrate his 90th birthday March 29, two days before the official handoff of Mark Trail to James Allen.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. He can be reached at 2183 Pinetree Circle NE, Gainesville, GA 30501. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com/johnny.


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