Fort Payne to celebrate native son and one groovy cat

Posted 8/3/18

Would you give up a job as an electrical engineer to paint pictures of cats?Young Pete the Cat fans can be thankful that Alabama native James Dean made that choice nearly 20 years ago. Dean and …

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Fort Payne to celebrate native son and one groovy cat

Posted

Would you give up a job as an electrical engineer to paint pictures of cats?

Young Pete the Cat fans can be thankful that Alabama native James Dean made that choice nearly 20 years ago. 

Dean and his famous feline creation will be celebrated in Fort Payne on Saturday. 

Pete the Cat Day will include a parade and the dedication of Pete the Cat Alley. Fans will also be able to meet Dean and his wife, Kimberly, a collaborator on Pete the Cat books since 2004.

Dean was born in Fort Payne in 1957, according to his bio at petethecat.com. He began drawing his favorite cartoon characters in first-grade.

After his father, a self-taught artist, left the family, his mother worked in a hosiery mill to support her three children.

The financial struggles left an impression on young Dean (whose actual last name was Thomas before he legally shortened it). He was passionate about art and music but wanted a career path that promised more financial security. 

He opted to pursue a major in electrical engineering at Auburn University but eventually sought a creative outlet in a drawing course.

According to a 2014 article in Atlanta Magazine, his art professor attempted to convince Dean to dedicate himself to his art. Dean's response:  “I’d love to but I have to go make some money.”

He graduated in 1982 and took a job at Georgia Power Company. In 1997, at age 39, he left the power company and a $70,000-a-year salary behind in order to pursue art full time.

In 1999, Dean met the cat that would help change his life.

Dean adopted Pete, a scrawny black kitten from a local shelter. He started painting pictures of him in normal cat poses (sleeping) and unusual ones (driving a VW bug).

Dean decided to make Pete a blue cat instead of a black one because he was afraid that no one would want to buy a painting of a black cat. 

Paintings of Pete were popular at art fairs that Dean attended, more popular than the landscapes that he began painting while still working for the power company. Unfortunately, the real Pete disappeared after less than a year, leaving Dean alone to make up new adventures for the fictional Pete.

Dean met Eric Litwin, a musician in 2006. The two self-published a children's book, "Pete the Cat: I Love My White Shoes," in 2008.

HarperCollins rereleased the book in 2010, and it became a New York Times bestseller. Its sequel, "Rocking in My School Shoes," came out in 2011.

Kim Dean, who quit a job in the Georgia governor's press office to work alongside her husband, took over from Litwin as author of the Pete series in 2013 with "Pete the Cat and His Magic Sunglasses."

To date, Pete has appeared in over 50 books, which includes picture books, storybooks and a series for beginning readers.

Last year, the groovy blue cat got his own holiday special on Amazon. Additional episodes have been promised but not yet delivered, much to the consternation of parents who reviewed the show on Amazon.com.

Dean now lives in Savannah with his wife, five cats and one dog. 

He's finally made the money that he chased after as a young man and he knows how fortunate he has been.

According to the 2014 magazine article, Dean signs all of his paintings with TNTFT, an acronym for "Take No Thought for Tomorrow." 

He also has a tattoo of Pete walking on top of the number 13 — for good luck, of course.

Jennifer Cohron is the Daily Mountain Eagle's features editor.