‘Joe Too Cool to Smoke’
Snoopy Marks His 10th Year In Wheeling
“Joe Too Cool to Smoke” Snoopy is celebrating its 10th birthday in Wheeling this month.
Used as an anti-smoking educational tool, the character is the brainchild of Ohio County health officer Dr. William Mercer, who continues to advocate for a smoke-free environment.
This special larger-than-life Snoopy figure was created in a California studio where professional artists designed 100 different versions of the popular beagle from the “Peanuts” comic strip. Mercer, who was on hand for the occasion, said “Joe Too Cool to Smoke” was “born” in May 2007.
Since arriving in Wheeling, “Joe Too Cool to Smoke” has accompanied Mercer and other volunteers to several school programs and educational outings.
After “Peanuts” creator Charles M. Schulz died in 2000, a statue of his main character, Charlie Brown, was created for his hometown of St. Paul, Minn. A Snoopy figure was made the next year. The project then shifted to Santa Rosa, Calif., where Schulz had lived, and suggestions were sought for new Snoopy figures.
At that time, Mercer and the Wheeling-Ohio County Board of Health were working on the county’s first clear indoor air regulation. Mercer, a huge Snoopy fan, thought a variation on Snoopy’s hip “Joe Cool” persona could be used to advance the smoke-free cause, especially among schoolchildren.
After Mercer suggested making “Joe Too Cool to Smoke,” Schulz’s son, Craig, told the physician, “We usually don’t do themes, but I like your idea and I’m going to let you do it.”
The health director worked with the artist to design the special Snoopy to reflect its new West Virginia home. The dog’s body features a background of blue skies and fluffy white clouds, with a mix of mountains and streams. One of the beagle’s long ears is adorned with a symbol of the sun, while the other ear sports a moon image. A bolt of lightning crosses each lens of the cool canine’s sunglasses.
The statue stands on a map of the United States, with West Virginia appearing larger than the other states. Snoopy holds a sign reading, “Peanuts and people for clean air everywhere.” Since Mercer wants clear indoor air regulations to be implemented nationwide, a large American flag is draped over the dog’s paw and foreleg.
“Joe Too Cool to Smoke” spent three months at the American Lung Association of California before being sent to Wheeling. “He was mine. Through the state of West Virginia, I was able to bring him back to do specifically tobacco prevention and kids’ programs,” Mercer said.
A big kickoff to the campaign was held at Wheeling Jesuit University in October 2007, with the U.S. surgeon general, then-Gov. Joe Manchin and 500 children in attendance. The Schulz family gave Mercer permission to use Snoopy for school programs for a year.
“We took him to 17 fifth grades, which was no easy feat,” he said, explaining that the statue weighs more than 500 pounds and is transported on a trailer with a hydraulic lift.
After a hiatus of several years, Snoopy was invited to participate in a tobacco prevention program at Woodsdale Elementary School. Mercer contacted Jeanne Schulz, the cartoonist’s widow, and she allowed him to use “Joe Too Cool to Smoke” for the school event.
She has given Mercer permission to do additional school programs in Ohio County and has authorized six more presentations next year. The Tuberculosis Association of -Ohio County is funding the 2018 anti-smoking programs.
During school visits, each student receives a special T-shirt, sunglasses and a “brag tag.” Mercer, who has collected Snoopy memorabilia since age 10, said, “‘Peanuts’ is still revelant to these kids. Kids seem to know the characters.”
Each program begins with a 15-minute history of the “Peanuts” characters, followed by messages on the dangers of all forms of tobacco and electronic cigarettes. Howard Gamble, administrator of the Wheeling-Ohio County Health Department, talks about the clear air regulation and cites the hazard of second-hand smoke.
Pig lungs are displayed to show the difference between diseased and healthy tissue. Students run around the gym and breathe with a straw to simulate effects of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
The health officer commented, “It’s all about education. We’re trying to educate as many as we can.”
Several volunteers, including dental hygienist Nancy LaBrosse, Gamble and Claudia Raymer of the Ohio County Family Resource Network, assist with the school programs. Wheeling Family Practice medical residents also attend the sessions. John Newbrough takes photographs of Snoopy posing with every school group.
Mercer related, “Snoopy has been very active. He likes to do Relay for Life. He loves to watch us beat the Steelers (in a charity basketball game). He has gone to Wheeling Park for the nighttime relay … He also goes to the Cancer Classic that Dr. (Gregory) Merrick does.”
The Snoopy figure has visited Peterson Rehabilitation Hospital and pediatrics departments at Ohio Valley Medical Center and Wheeling Hospital. The statue spent a month at Marquee Cinema at The Highlands for “Peanuts” movie screenings.
When not making outside appearances, “Joe Too Cool to Smoke” Snoopy lives in the lobby of Mercer’s private practice office at Wheeling Clinic. Photographs of the character’s many school visits and events line the hallways and rooms of the physician’s office, sharing space with his extensive Snoopy collection.