For more than 20 years, Robert McDonald brought his "good friend" Smokey the Bear and their shared message of forest fire safety and prevention to fourth-grade students in Banks and Hall counties.
And when McDonald, his wife and others took turns donning the bulky bear suit at such gatherings, his message was always the same: "Only YOU can prevent forest fires."
Whether it was fire safety or putting out blazes himself, the former supervisor of the Banks-Hall County Unit of the Georgia Forestry Commission in Lula — who died Feb. 22 at 76 after a long battle with cancer — will be remembered for his dedication and kindness.
McDonald began working with the Forestry Commission in 1956 at the McDuffie-Warren Unit, where he operated a forest fire lookout tower. After a leave of absence to serve in the U.S. Army, McDonald was transferred to DeKalb County as an assistant ranger. Not long afterward, he was promoted and transferred to Hall.
Before his retirement in 1991, McDonald could often be found escorting Smokey to and from schools, civic meetings, festivals and parades. Sometimes, McDonald himself would don the bear costume and pose for photos with schoolchildren.
McDonald’s wife of 34 years, Barbara McDonald, said he loved to teach children about fire safety but admitted few looked forward to their turn in the bear suit.
"It was hot and heavy, and several times I wound up as Smokey at festivals and parades," Barbara McDonald said.
She laughed as she remembered being revealed as Smokey at one festival she attended with her husband years ago. A student noticed her high-heeled shoes poking out under the bear costume and alerted Robert McDonald to Smokey’s odd choice of footwear.
But while he might not have entirely enjoyed the heat that accompanied wearing the costume, McDonald loved his work.
When Aug. 23, 1987, was declared Smokey Bear Day before an Atlanta Braves game at Fulton County Stadium, Robert McDonald was selected to be Smokey’s escort. He lead the mascot around the infield prior to the game, greeting fans as they went.
Even after he was eligible for retirement, he continued to work. His wife jokes that he must not have liked spending time with her because he wound up losing about $300 a month by doing so.
"But he just loved going to work every day and being with people," Barbara McDonald said.
For 25 years, he worked with former forest patrolman Neil Whitmire. They pair became close friends over their years and retired from the commission at the same time.
Whitmire said he’ll always remember Robert McDonald as the "kind of person that would do anything for you."
"He did a lot for the public and the county," Whitmire said. "If a tree was on fire, or the woods were burning, all those calls were responded to."
Whitmire said back in those days, the county didn’t have a public fire department, so fire calls came through the forestry commission. Though they weren’t equipped to handle house fires, rangers responded anyway.
Whitmire said McDonald could always be counted on to go wherever he was needed, no matter what time the call came. Robert McDonald thought of his job as a calling.
"You have to like doing it," Whitmire said. "Most people don’t like getting those calls in the middle of the night."
Whitmire remembers how McDonald would always be nice to people, no matter their disposition.
"He always tried to answer any questions that came up," Whitmire said. "Even if we didn’t think it was important it was to whoever was asking. He knew that."
McDonald also had a reputation for cleanliness. Former Chief Ranger of Lumpkin County Marvin Martin worked alongside him on several forest fires over the years. The county units often responded to each other’s calls if a fire got too big.
One particular fire the units put out together stands out in Martin’s mind.
"I never will forget this. We were working on a fire at the north end of Lumpkin County one time and they came and helped us," Martin said with a chuckle. "We were working for five or six hours, and by the time I got off, I was just covered in soot and dirt and ashes and just felt dirty. Well, he (Robert McDonald) brushed his hands off a little bit and looked just like he did when he drove up. He had a knack for staying clean."
That knack earned him the nickname "Mr. Clean."
"He always wanted to look good himself," Whitmire said. "He wanted to present a good image of the Forestry Commission."
His cleanliness was carried over to his vehicles, too. Whitmire said McDonald washed his vehicles religiously. Martin helped him build a shed to protect his prized 1956 Ford and 1976 Ranchero.
Barbara McDonald said she always joked with her husband that the Ford would have to follow him to the cemetery. Her brother drove it in the procession from the funeral home.
McDonald kept himself busy during his later years repairing CB radios and emailing daily jokes to his friends across the country. More than anything, friends and family will remember a man with a sense of humor and a kind heart.
"He’s missed around here," Barbara McDonald said.