The word “destiny” seems to come into play in the life of Donnie Pitchford ’83.
Little did the “Lum and Abner” cartoonist of today know as a young child in Memphis during the 1960s or as an SFA student in the early 1980s that a series of events would lead him to the multiple artistic endeavors he now enjoys.
Producing weekly “Lum and Abner” cartoons and recording audio versions of each, freelancing as an editorial cartoonist, illustrating children’s books, collaborating on comic books, helping design veterans’ memorial statues, producing a documentary and becoming a sought-after public speaker on all these topics — this is Pitchford’s life today.
It started with a deep interest in television animation and comic books, followed by his announcement to his family at age 5 that he was “gonna be a cartoonist.” Combine the influence of the rural comedy television genre of the 1960s and his love of “Old Time Radio” with an introduction in 1980 to the original “Lum and Abner” radio show, thanks to a now-retired SFA communication professor, and you have the makings of a cartoonist, although he was “sidetracked” by a broadcasting teaching career for a few decades.
Born in Jacksonville, Texas, Pitchford knew at an early age what he wanted to become as soon as he saw animation on television around 1960.
“I never missed the prime-time weekly series ‘The Flintstones,’ and I appreciated the voices and music as much as the animation,” Pitchford said. “I was given a comic book version of ‘The Flintstones,’ and that fascinated me, as well. Disney, Walter Lantz, Warner Brothers, Hanna-Barbera, Terrytoons and, a little later, characters like Popeye, Gumby and others caught my attention on television. The Sunday newspaper comics were very important to me.”
He wrote to prominent cartoonists of the time, including George Wildman of “Popeye” comic book fame, who was the only cartoonist to write back. That connection led to a 45-year friendship until Wildman’s death in 2016. Another more recent mentor is Hy Eisman, who at 91 is still working and drawing today’s “Popeye” Sunday newspaper strip.
After the family moved to Memphis in 1963, a young Pitchford started drawing his own characters, which he didn’t know at the time but now realizes were somewhat similar to the style of “Lum and Abner.”
“I was basing them more on strips like ‘Snuffy Smith’ and rural comedy genre on television like ‘The Real McCoys,’ ‘The Andy Griffith Show,’ ‘The Beverly Hillbillies,’” he said. “My dad often thought my efforts were silly and probably hoped I’d grow out of this phase.
My mother was always supportive. At times, my dad would reconsider, but as high school came along, we had some major ‘discussions’ about the reality of my goals. I believe he felt I’d never make it in the industry. And I didn’t during his lifetime.”
While attending high school in Longview, Pitchford worked as a freelance artist for the Weiber-Reynolds Co. He also worked in his family’s silkscreen business while in high school and as a printer and artist for a Longview commercial printing company between and during college semesters and other jobs.
He received an associate degree in commercial art from Kilgore College before earning a Bachelor of Fine Arts in secondary art education at SFA, followed by a master’s degree in interdisciplinary studies from The University of Texas at Tyler.
Although Pitchford had been interested in nostalgic films and music as a child, it was SFA’s Dr. Joe Oliver who introduced him to the 15-minute “Lum and Abner” radio show when the communication (radio-TV) professor aired an episode on Halloween night in 1980 when Pitchford was an SFA student.
Pitchford often tuned in to the still fairly new KSAU campus radio station. Oliver was trying to build an audience for KSAU, and airing Old Time Radio shows was one of his ideas to get attention and garner listeners.
Pitchford remembered his father telling him about the “Lum and Abner” radio show in the mid-1960s when they were having lunch together at a Lum’s Restaurant in Memphis. The elder Pitchford had listened to the show while growing up in Arkansas.
Although Pitchford had become fascinated with radio’s Golden Age while still in high school, the chance to hear classic programs on the campus radio station was “a bonus to brighten the tedious days and nights.”
“I’d tune in to KSAU-FM and listen to ‘The Jack Benny Program,’ ‘Suspense,’ ‘Inner Sanctum,’ ‘Fibber McGee and Molly,’ and one radio show that would soon become an important part of my life, ‘Lum and Abner,’” Pitchford said.
Oliver’s voice seemed familiar to Pitchford, but he attributed it to his assumption that all radio announcers “learn to sound that way.”
During the next summer, a Gilmer, Texas, radio station started airing “Lum and Abner” daily. Pitchford would set a timer to record it and soon became hooked on that style of “down-home humor and the warmth of the characters, which were (for the most part) all played by two talented men who had grown up in Mena, Arkansas,” Pitchford said.
After landing his first teaching job at Hawkins High School in 1983, Pitchford taught art and graphic arts classes and served as the sponsor of the yearbook and school newsletter.
A year later, Pitchford was a founding officer of a radio historical and educational organization, the National Lum and Abner Society.
“We published a bimonthly newsletter from 1984 to 2007 and held annual conventions in Mena, Arkansas, where we brought in actors, announcers, writers, producers and family members associated with Lum (Chester Lauck) and Abner (Norris Goff). We had film showings, radio script performances, etc. and worked with the Lum and Abner Museum, which is located not far away in the ‘real’ community of Pine Ridge, renamed for the radio show’s location,” Pitchford said.
Working at Carthage High School from 1985 to 2010, Pitchford taught broadcast journalism and video technology and was media director for more than 20 years, all the while working with the National Lum and Abner Society and its conventions. He also was an adjunct college instructor for a time.
As the NLAS grew, the organization eventually garnered Oliver as a member. Pitchford wrote Oliver, introducing himself and telling him of the two years he had eagerly awaited each edition of his KSAU broadcasts. Pitchford told Oliver how he had first heard a 15-minute “Lum and Abner” segment on KSAU and filled him in regarding his involvement in the NLAS. Rather than sending a written reply, Oliver called Pitchford.
“I soon learned why ‘that voice’ had been so familiar,” Pitchford said. “Turns out, I’d heard it in the 1960s when Dr. Oliver was an announcer for WREC Radio in Memphis, as well as WREC-TV. It was his voice that announced the late-night ‘Award Theatre’ on Channel 3 where I was introduced to the classic series of 20th Century Fox Charlie Chan films.”
Within months, the two men met in person.
From 1995 to 2010, Pitchford’s Carthage High School television students broadcast “The Golden Age of Radio,” and, after Oliver and Pitchford finally got to know each other, Oliver was always willing to evaluate the work of Pitchford’s students, write critiques, compose recommendation letters and work with the students.
“Many of my students created video productions that won state championships,” Pitchford said. “Some of my graduates became students in Dr. Oliver’s SFA classes, moving on to careers in broadcasting, cinematography and education.”
Friendship and a mutual appreciation of radio history between the two men eventually led Pitchford last fall to turn Oliver’s 1972 radio program “WREC … at 50” into an internet video documentary. In “WREC … at 50,” Oliver wrote and produced the story of radio pioneer Hoyt B. Wooten, who hand-built his first transmitter in 1922 and started a broadcast empire in Memphis, Tennessee, where Oliver worked for a time. The documentary can be viewed on YouTube.
In 2010, Pitchford’s life was about to take a full-circle turn. He began working with Argo Press, producing cover/miscellaneous art and writing articles for Charlton Spotlight magazine. He also was interviewed by the online newspaper FirstArkansasNews about his knowledge of “Lum and Abner” and the society.
After retiring from education that year, he had an idea of proposing a Sunday-style comic strip for FirstArkansasNews. After working out the details and acquiring the necessary rights, the “Lum and Abner” comic strip and an accompanying audio segment were launched in June 2011. Pitchford had finally become the cartoonist he’d dreamed about as a boy.
When he reflects on his time at SFA and the influences on his life, Pitchford can’t help but think of Oliver and other SFA professors who made deep impressions on him.
“The art courses were invaluable, particularly life drawing under Jon Wink, watercolor and ad design with Jim Snyder, sculpture with Piero Fenci, and painting under Bert Rees,” he said.
“Even though I was an art education major, I had a deep interest and love in broadcast,” Pitchford said. “Had I known I’d end up teaching it, I’d have made certain to take classes in that department. Instead, I tuned in to KSAU where I heard the voice of Dr. Oliver. His broadcasts inspired me.”
Today, Pitchford has his own active “Lum and Abner” following on Facebook, as well as in print and on the airwaves. “I’ve had readers ranging in age from their teens to much older than me. Many are folks who are unhappy with much of what today’s radio and television offer and prefer a nostalgic experience.”
The Arkansas newspaper audience comprises readers who live in the area Lauck and Goff came from.
“My hope is to continue producing the comic strip and audio as long as I am able,” Pitchford said. “I’d like to place it in more newspapers, which, of course, would mean more income, but also more exposure. I’d like to keep those classic characters, created by Lauck and Goff for radio, alive for the future.”