Uncle Bunky’s Unexpected Adventure
Story William Browning | Photographs Whitten Sabbatini
Know that he never meant to.
For years and years and years, Robert Williams drew pictures for children on a Columbus TV show. He likes to say he could not have envisioned it if he tried. He grew up shy and poor in Columbus, you see, the son of a service station manager and restaurant worker. After leaving the Air Force, the 26-year-old had gone to work at WCBI to do only behind the scenes work on commercials and slides. It was the station manager who wanted a children’s show. Williams could draw and the idea to put him on live TV with groups of local children and draw for them was born. This was 1958, and for one hour five days a week for the next 22 years Williams entertained children with his imaginative drawings. The show was “Fun Time” and on it Williams became everyone’s “Uncle Bunky.”
Williams eventually found himself in possession of a great rapport with children. “The shyness just fell away,” he said. He drew left-handed with a black magic marker. Things he called “crazy animals” were a specialty. It was like this: One child would ask him to draw a tiger’s head, another would ask for an elephant’s body, another would ask for a mouse’s feet. Williams would do it, and send every child home with a drawing. There were so many smiles.
The show’s success surprised him as much as anyone. Williams estimates that by 1981, when “Fun Time” went off air, he had drawn 100,000 pictures. These days when he is maybe in Walmart, or maybe with his family in a local restaurant, grown strangers will walk over and call him “Uncle Bunky” and recount the time they were on “Fun Time.” There are still smiles.
Not long ago, sitting in his Columbus home, Williams explained that while the show brought a celebrity to him for which he is grateful, he views that time as one that served to ready him for his life’s true work.
“I had a good time with ‘Fun Time,’ but the work with the sheriff’s office helped more people,” he said.
In the late 1970s the Lowndes County Sheriff’s Department hired Williams as a narcotics agent. He became the department’s juvenile director. Child abuse cases were his focus. When he would go to local schools to give a talk to a classroom about rights and wrongs, he could look into the crowd and know who was hurt. He carries tough memories from that time, when he learned about wounded children and was involved in arresting those who were responsible. Today, when he recalls the worst of the worst cases, there is an even distribution of opposing emotions in his eyes. Pride, for knowing that he did what he could to help. But also hurt, for knowing what cannot be undone.
Williams is 81 now, retired for a decade. He and Joyce, his wife of 62 years, live in a wooded neighborhood in north Columbus. He has a ready laugh, deeply Southern voice and open manner. Parkinson’s disease has not made him put down his pencil. He still draws and paints in a studio full of his work.
Williams was never enthused with his ability as an artist. He has never had a lesson. A shoulder shrug is how he explains it. “Just born with it,” he said. He is drawn to create by something he cannot articulate. There are times when it happens in the middle of the night.
“When I sit down, I don’t know what I’m going to draw,” he said. “It just starts coming out. I don’t know.”
Lately he has been pulled toward Native American history and paints sad scenes. They are vivid and poignant, human and wild pieces of art that often depict women and children. In the bottom corner of each, he signs, “Bunky.”