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For arriving RNC delegates, Dagwood Bumstead grows a trunk

Dean Young, in his Clearwater Beach studio with his Dagwood-themed elephant, is the son of Blondie creator Chic Young. He worked 10 years with his father learning the ropes and took over the comic strip after his dad died in 1973.
Published Aug. 20, 2012

CLEARWATER

That Dagwood Bumstead is up to his usual tomfoolery. This time, he's an elephant, sprouting those trademark cowlicks and balancing a very tall sandwich on his trunk. Dagwood — the elephant version — is the latest fiberglass sculpture to join "Herd About Tampa Bay," a public art project featuring some 30 petite (4-by-4-foot) pachyderms painted by local artists.

The "herds" are gathered at Tampa International Airport, Channelside Bay Plaza in downtown Tampa, and at various locations in Pinellas County to welcome an expected 50,000 visitors to the upcoming Republican National Convention in Tampa.

"The eyes of the nation will be on Tampa Bay, and it's only fitting that we have an iconic elephant to represent our local artists," said Jay Goulde, executive director of the Outdoor Arts Foundation, which is collaborating with the 2012 Tampa Bay Host Committee on the public art display.

Dagwood the Elephant's designer, Dean Young, lives on Clearwater Beach. He's tall, trim and tanned, with a thatch of white hair on his head — not a cowlick in sight. Young took over the long-running Blondie comic strip after his dad, Chic, died in 1973.

"I worked with him for 10 years," said Young, sitting behind the desk in his two-story studio on Clearwater Beach. "He taught me everything I needed to know about writing for a big-time comic strip."

But did he teach him how to turn Dagwood into an elephant?

That was a bit of a challenge, says Young. The fiberglass elephants distributed to artists are molded in profile, so to show off both of Dagwood's coin-slot eyes, his cowlicks and the part down the middle of his hair, the sculpture had to be elevated to a 3D perspective.

Dagwood gained a few pounds and grew a trunk for his new look, but the red bow tie, single shirt button, shoes and briefcase are still there, along with the signature sandwich.

The elephant Dagwood, which is sponsored by the Tampa Bay Times, was installed at Channelside Bay Plaza in Tampa on Thursday, though the rest of the "herd" was installed there Aug. 12. Dagwood, true to character, was running a little bit late.

Many Tampa Bay residents don't know that the producer of the Blondie comic strips is local, but Young, 74, has been a resident of Clearwater Beach since his father moved the family here from California in 1956.

"I didn't want to come, especially during my senior year in high school, but my dad liked it better here. So he strapped me to the front fender and away we went," Young said with his characteristic cartoon humor. "Actually, I had a great time that year (at Clearwater High School), probably more than I would have had in California."

Today, the syndicated Blondie comic strip, in print since 1930, appears in more than 2,300 newspapers around the globe. It's a happy storyline. After all, Dagwood has been married to beautiful Blondie since 1933 — that's 79 years. (Through the birth of two children and plenty of pastrami sandwiches, Blondie still has the most enviable figure on the comic strip block.)

Young says the strip gives hope to dorky guys everywhere.

"You have this guy who looks like an alien from the Planet Zork, but he's married to this voluptuous blonde. That's our license to operate," Young said.

It wasn't always easy. When Chic died, so did confidence in the strip. Six hundred newspapers dropped Blondie.

"That's when I started writing for myself," Young said. "I knew I had to increase the tempo and sophistication of the humor."

He updated wardrobes — Blondie began to wear slacks and flat shoes. In the 1990s, she started her own catering business. Today's characters use computers, cell phones and high-tech devices. Dagwood no longer misses the bus — he now misses the carpool.

Young's daughter, Dianne Erwin, 36, is his marketing director. Thanks to her, Blondie is a social media butterfly on Facebook at facebook.com/blondiecomic, on the Web at blondie.com and on Twitter @blondie_comic.

Daughter Dana Young Coston, 46, is Young's creative assistant and helps him write the strip. She will take over the business one day. He has a third daughter, lawyer Lisa Rogers.

"We start with a blank piece of paper, toss stuff around. We spitball," Young said. "Then we come up with a spark of an idea and make it funny. We've lasted so long because we've stayed funny."

Many would agree. The perennial comic strip has spawned films, TV and radio shows, books and comic books.

So will Dagwood and Blondie have anything to say in the funny pages about the Republican National Convention?

Not a chance.

"I like staying away from politics," Young said. "You don't want to divide your readers. But to be a part of helping to present our community, Tampa and the state to the rest of the world, well, I think that's a very good thing."

Reach Terri Reeves at treeves@tampabay.rr.com.

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