If you know iconic Boys’ Life cartoon characters like Pedro and Dink and Duff, you know Tom Eaton, the artist and writer who recently ended decades of Boys’ Life brilliance because of health issues.
Long before he thought about drawing a pun-spewing, galaxy-hopping, anything-munching mailburro named Pedro, Tom Eaton was a student at the University of Kansas, where he found himself at a crossroads. He was studying engineering, which can be a pretty lucrative field. But he felt torn between that safe career path and his lifelong interest in drawing and cartooning. He idolized famous comic heroes such as Prince Valiant, Krazy Kat and Pogo, and his parents and teachers always encouraged him to develop his skills.
So Eaton made a decision. “I realized one day that I would probably make a mediocre engineer, whereas I would probably make a better cartoonist if I followed my passion,” he says. While in school he contributed cartoons to both the newspaper and yearbooks, which he calls “invaluable training” for his later career. After graduation in 1962, he took a job writing and drawing humorous cards at Hallmark Cards in Kansas City, Mo., where he also met his future wife, Shara. Then he was drafted into the Army, where one of his jobs was applying theatrical makeup to faux patients so surgeons could practice handling battlefield wounds.
After a couple of years as an art editor for Scholastic Books in New York, Eaton began freelancing, a path which, in the early ’80s, led to a long association with Boys’ Life magazine. Former art director Joe Connolly, also an Army buddy of Eaton’s, says Eaton drew “Dink and Duff” and “Webelos Woody,” in addition to taking over the existing Pedro character. “Tom had the gift of both writing and illustrating, which is rare,” says Connolly, who retired from the BSA in 2005. “He really defined Pedro’s look for the next 30-plus years.”
Now 75, Eaton says he will never forget the challenge and the fun of serving as Pedro’s official spokesman and interpreter. He says that it was a labor of love — emphasis on both the labor and the love. Because he did the artwork with pen and ink on paper, many of the strips took considerable time to reach the ready-to-mail stage. If he found himself with writer’s block, he would often kick-start his imagination by taking a long walk or a bike ride along a local trail. Many times, the fresh air and sunshine were all the inspiration he needed to press on with Pedro’s latest hijinks.
Eaton also took pains with the language of the strip, which often featured alliteration and elaborate word plays such as “queasy quadruped” and “entrepreneurial edible innovation.” Eaton says the luminous lingo was mainly for fun, but if any Scouts beefed up their vocabulary under Pedro’s spell? Well, that’s an added bonus.
Looking back on his decades with Scouting, this brilliant burro biographer says he has enjoyed his close friendship with Pedro, but he wants readers to know that he has little in common with the alfalfa aficionado. “Some of the kids may think I’ve had the kind of adventures Pedro has, but really, I’ve had a fairly normal life. I’ve enjoyed things like biking, swimming and playing with our dogs.” His condition, Lewy body dementia, has slowed Eaton down and causes problems with his speech, but he and Shara still take their dog, Cinnamon, for a walk twice a day.
Speaking of dogs, Eaton has a lifelong dedication to animal welfare; the Eatons have owned 17 dogs and seven cats — all rescue animals — during their 48-year marriage.
Eaton says he will miss bringing Pedro to life, but he trusts the four-legged phenom will be in good hands. He won’t presume to advise the new artist, Kansas illustrator Stephen Gilpin: “I’m sure he’ll find his way.” The key to Pedro’s success, Eaton believes, was finding the right blend of entertainment and life lessons for young readers. Above all, the strip was fun — and fun never goes out of style.
Connolly says Eaton brought not just talent but dedication to the pages of Boys’ Life. “He was dependable, always on time, always fit the bill, always able to do whatever we needed,” Connolly says. “He never missed a deadline or made excuses. He is one of the most important contributors the magazine ever had.”
See more of Tom Eaton’s wacky Pedro comics at boyslife.org/pedro-adventures.