Celebrating the life of Herron School Alumnus Norman Bridwell

The man behind a childhood favorite, Clifford the Big Red Dog

By Kim Dunlap

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Photo via Scholastic

In the Fall of 1945, Norman Bridwell walked into the John Herron School of Art for the first time. There was no way of knowing at the time that this was the beginning step in a long, illustrious journey. He had never heard of Clifford, or Emily Elizabeth. His future was uncertain and full of opportunity. Bridwell embraced it. Yet, attending Herron was a decision that almost didn’t happen for one of the university’s most famous alums.

Bridwell was born in Kokomo, Indiana on February 15, 1928. While growing up in that small town, Norman’s mind became full of big ideas. He knew early on in life that he wanted to be an artist.

“Other kids would be out hitting a ball around, and I’d be inside drawing on paper my father brought home from the factory,” he said.

He drew imaginary people and places on countless pieces of paper. He credited the quiet walks to and from school every day, saying these times to himself gave him inspiration. After he graduated from Kokomo High School in 1945, Bridwell was left with the question of what he wanted to do with his life. It took a mother’s nudge to point him in the right direction.

When Bridwell’s brother graduated high school, he knew he was going to be a lawyer. Bridwell, himself, on the other hand, didn’t have any idea what he was going to do. One day, his mother said he should try going to art school. Bridwell took her advice and enrolled at Herron in Indianapolis, Indiana.

Looking back on those college days, Bridwell said that going to Herron was an obvious choice for him.

“I could go there by bus and be home on the weekends,” he said, referring to the close distance between Indianapolis and his hometown of Kokomo.

Bridwell was a hard-working student at Herron, mainly concentrating on school projects. He made friends but didn’t belong to any campus clubs. After he graduated in 1949, Bridwell moved back to Kokomo, Indiana to find employment. He worked small jobs for an acquaintance of his, but the city ultimately offered no career for the struggling illustrator with a head full of ideas. 

“Being in Kokomo wasn’t a good decision. Other artists got jobs, and I was on the outside,” he said.

Around that same time, some of Bridwell’s friends were going to Cooper Union, an art school in NYC. According to his friends, the idea was simple.

“They said ‘come with us. You’re out of work here. You might as well be out of work in New York.’” Bridwell said.

NYC was a world away from everything he knew, but Norman also knew he had to take a leap of faith.

He studied at Cooper Union for two years before beginning his career as a commercial artist. During those first few years in New York, Bridwell did everything from wrapping presents at a Macy’s Department Store to working in a lettering studio. Eventually he found employment, freelancing and drawing cartoons for filmstrips. They were mostly for sales meetings and promotions, but he had found a way to earn money while also pursuing his passion of drawing. Bridwell’s work included Arrow Shirts, American Standard Plumbing and Maxwell House Coffee. The writers produced a script and the cartoonists drew humor into the situation. However, there was one major hurdle. Norman
had a difficult time convincing the salesmen that the cartoons were funny.

“They usually didn’t like the jokes,” he said. “I had a lot of fun trying to inject humor into a very dry script. It was good practice.”

As the years went by, Bridwell fell into a freelance routine. His personal life was also flourishing. In 1958, he married fellow artist, Norma Howard. Their first child, Emily Elizabeth, was born four years later. However, Bridwell’s professional life was in a struggle. Freelance work wasn’t providing well enough for his young, growing family. In 1962, Bridwell was running out of money.

One day, Norma Bridwell made a suggestion to her husband.

“My wife said ‘you always wanted to illustrate children’s books, why don’t you try that?’”

Norman created 10 sample paintings, shuffling them around to various publishing companies. He was universally rejected, and several even told him his artwork was no good. Anyone could have given up hope at that moment in time, but Bridwell remained persistent. The reward for that persistence came in the form of a big, red dog.

Susan Hirschman, an editor at one of New York City’s publishing companies, told Bridwell that if he wanted to create a children’s book, he had to write one himself because his illustrations were not strong enough on their own. 

“She pointed to a sample painting I did of a little girl sitting under the shade of a big bloodhound. She said maybe that was a story,” Bridwell said.

Hirschman had given Bridwell inspiration, and Clifford the Big Red Dog was about to take off.

Bridwell spent three days coming up with the illustrations and words for his first book idea. The book had two title characters, a little girl and her oversized canine companion. The little girl was named Emily Elizabeth, after Norman’s young daughter. The idea for the dog’s name was a bit more difficult.

“I started off calling him Tiny,” Bridwell said, in an interview for School Library Journal last February.

He later renamed the dog Clifford, and the pair finally became alive. After he was finished, his wife molded the pages together in the form of a book. Norman took his completed story into a publishing house.

“I didn’t expect to hear anything,” he said. “But two weeks later a phone call came from Scholastic saying they wanted to publish it.”

He was shocked. The man who met rejection so many times finally had his story.

Clifford the Big Red Dog was published in 1963. Throughout the next 50 years, Bridwell wrote countless books about Clifford. He admits that he really has no idea why children have related so well to his characters.

“I didn’t do any planning,’” Bridwell said. “I don’t know anything about child
psychology and have never taken a course in writing. I just sort of thought things up and luckily have found things that children enjoyed.”

Clifford turned 50-years-old in September 2012, and there was a party in his honor in New York City, NY. Bridwell, his wife, and their daughter attended the event. In attendance were four of his ex-editors, as well as Hirschman. Norman enjoyed the company.

It’s in one of those editors that he found some of his best advice. Beatrice de Regniers was Norman’s first editor at Scholastic.

“She said write from the heart,” Bridwell said. “Don’t try to follow a trend.”

He did just that. There were other stories in Bridwell’s collection. There was a friendly witch who lived next door to a pair of young children and even a tiny family who battled life’s biggest obstacles. However, it always came back to that big, red dog and his faithful companion, Emily Elizabeth. 

And through it all, standing steadfastly at Bridwell’s side, was Norma. In their later years, the couple lived on Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts. It was a place they honeymooned at several years before. Their children, Emily Elizabeth and Tim, grew up there while their grandchildren visited them. It was also where, on December 12, 2014, Norman Bridwell died at 86. This summer, a public memorial will be held to commemorate his life.

Scholastic, Bridwell’s publisher for more than 50 years, released a statement shortly after his death.

“At Scholastic, we are deeply saddened by the loss of our loyal and talented friend, whose drawings and stories have inspired all of us and generations of children and their parents.”

Norman Bridwell left quite a legacy. Some might even say it was just as large as the red dog that made him famous. Of course Norman would probably have said it was all sheer luck.

“I can’t do anything else,” he said in 2013. “I can’t nail two boards together. I can’t repair a car. I have no other skills. I just have to do what I do. I’ve been very fortunate that so far I’ve gotten away with it.”

Editors’s Note: In September 2013, Kim Dunlap interviewed Norman Bridwell. Many people may be unaware of this name, but his creations are very recognizable. From elementaryclassrooms to the children’s sections of America’s libraries, Bridwell’s work iseverywhere.