When I met Paul Edwards, the first thing I noticed was his bright yellow sweater, which flaunted a stylish yet fierce hornet on its front. The insect is the mascot of Emporia State University (ESU) in Kansas; and the cartoon image smiling back at me from the center of that sweater is Edwards’ design. He created the stinging sidekick for his small eastern college nearly 80 years ago when he was a student there. Now, at age 97, Edwards is still most proud of this accomplishment.
Edwards has lived at Santa Barbara’s Valle Verde since 1990, but his story began in the small oil town of Morris, Oklahoma. Born in 1915, Edwards experienced both the ratification and the repeal of Prohibition, the building of Route 66, and the devastating droughts that lead to the Dust Bowl. During his freshman year at ESU in 1933, Edwards entered a campus-wide drawing contest to best depict their hornet mascot; he won with his illustration of “Corky the Hornet,” which still represents the school today. As an art major, Edwards was dedicated to all things Corky and in 1934, cast an 11-inch bronze of his creation. Seventy years later, that bronze statuette inspired its life-sized replica, which was erected in 2004 and guards the entrance to the school’s administration building; the original is in Edwards’ living room.
In addition to flexing his creativity, Edwards was a force on the tennis court, leading his team to the state finals in 1937. Although ESU came up short against Wichita State University, Edwards continued his tennis career while serving for the U.S. Armed Services during World War II. Edwards decided to enlist in the U.S. Navy after the attacks on Pearl Harbor in 1941 and received orders to report to Naval Magazine Indian Island, Washington. Charged with training gunner pilots how to decipher a friendly plane from enemy aircraft, he rose quickly through the ranks in his three-year tour of duty. Edwards has fond memories of friendly tennis matches between California naval bases, set up by tennis-great Don Budge. But it wasn’t through sport that Edwards left a lasting impression—it was through art. Indian Island has been home for 70 years to a massive, 4’x12’ mural painted by Edwards, depicting the strength and determination of naval officers during WWII. Today, this mural—and others painted by Edwards during his Navy stint—cover the walls at the Naval Magazine Indian Island command building. In June 2012, Edwards returned as an honored veteran to Indian Island and was awarded a Navy cap with “scrambled eggs”—the golden leaf and acorn embellishment found on the cap’s visor. “I thought of it as a promotion,” Edwards explained as typically only senior officers receive such an honor.
In the late 1940s, Edwards’ artistic skills took he and his wife Marialice to Los Angeles where he accepted an animation position at Walt Disney Animation Studios. There he worked on such Disney films as Johnny Appleseed and Little Toot, as well as creating Mr. Bluebird (on my shoulder) from the “Zippity Doo Dah” portion of Song of the South. His short but successful stretch at Disney cemented a lifelong passion for drawing, painting, sculpting, and anything creative. He returned to ESU to teach freehand and drawing.
His family grew significantly over the years, with three children, three grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren sprinkled throughout the United States. When Edwards and his late wife retired to Santa Barbara more than 20 years ago, he traded his tennis racket for a ping-pong paddle, and lifts dumbbells each week to keep physically fit. He continues to sketch and paint watercolors of the many places he traveled throughout his amazing life. After Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005, Edwards sold several of his watercolors to friends in the community to ultimately raise more than $5,000 for relief services.
He has seen the world through many significant changes, from the industrial age to the space Age to the computer age. His eyes sparkled when describing the aspects of his life for which he feels truly passionate—his family, his alma mater, and his art. He is an inspiration to budding artists, aspiring athletes, and even young journalists breaking into the publishing industry. Heading into his second century of life, Edwards offers his secret of longevity: Live each day with passion.