Pete the Cat ’s Adventures in Downtown Fort Payne

Pete the Cat’s Adventures in Downtown Fort Payne
By Patty Tucker

There once was this groovy dude from Fort Payne who learned early in life he possessed a great artistic talent for drawing, painting and bringing scenes to life.  This remarkable man, who grew up knowing what it was like to be poor, held down a job through his high school years to help support his family, put himself through college to earn an engineering degree, all while remaining true to his artistic abilities and to this day continues to be as humble and gentle a spirit as he was those some 45 + years ago.

James Dean, born in Fort Payne, yet lived out his youthful years in other places, returned to Fort Payne and completed his education by attending Fort Payne High School for his freshmen through senior years, graduating in 1976. Here, he honed his artistry and began creating prints on canvas and selling at various art fairs. After college, he obtained a job in Fort Payne in engineering but knew deep down that it wasn’t the career path he wanted to always travel. He eventually decided to leave his job and pursue his dream of being an artist. When he quit his job, Dean says, “I thought I would live paycheck to paycheck, and did for a while.  ”He adds, “I created many works of art and attended craft and art fairs, making a meager living at first.  I realized I needed a full-time job to support myself.  ”He went to work for Georgia Power as an engineer and found himself moving there to be closer to his job.

During his tenure with the power company, Dean continued to paint. One day while sketching, his pet cat caught his attention in a way that caused his imagination to stir and soon, Pete the Cat was born.  Dean says he couldn’t paint fast enough. “The more I painted the more ideas that came to life. I soon realized I couldn’t paint everything I imagined so I created a notebook with folders of ideas. If I get stuck, all I have to do is look at my files for inspiration.”

Dean says, “I was now 40+ years old and drawing cat images to sell at a booth in Atlanta and driving a vehicle with Pete the Cat painted on my car doors. Never was it on my mind that I would one day write a book.” Dean adds, “but that is what happened.” He credits a brilliant teacher who became a musician, going to schools to entertain the children.  Dean says, “this man stopped me one day to tell me he drives by and sees my booth of artwork and my car with Pete the Cat and tells me he has written a song about Pete. We, Eric Litwin, and myself strike up a friendship and before we knew it, were writing a book together with my illustrations of Pete.”

Dean and Litwin’s book, titled, I Love My White Shoes, was published and became #7 on the New York Time’s Best Seller’s List. Dean says, “this was never my goal. I was just delighted to be published.” When asked how many Pete the Cat books there are, he commented, “I don’t like to count. I was happy I was published once. I don’t feel like I am finished yet and am thankful that there was even a first book to begin with. I feel like counting how many books there are is an ego trip and it is not about me or my ego. The books are for the children and to make them feel encouraged, happy, bring a smile to their faces and hopefully be inspired in some way.”

The now famous iconic image of a tall blue cat with long whiskers and big yellow eyes has gone global.  Multiple books, a cartoon on Prime, Pete the Cat merchandise and Dean’s never-ending imaginative drawings of Pete will ensure the cat lives on for all eternity. Dean muses, “Pete was a gift from God to me. God put this on me. Pete the Cat is a miracle and has been a miracle in my life. I don’t know where I would be without him.”

Like finding Waldo among a sea of people because of his unique features and Flat Stanley’s propensity to show up at destinations around the world, Pete the Cat’s striking features and Dean’s ability to paint him in any scene, has the cat easy to spot, whether he is lurking around a busy street corner, driving a motorcycle or VW Bus, hanging out at a drive-in movie theater, or sitting atop a Welcome to Alabama state highway sign. Pete is there.

Dean credits many people for his success, starting with his teen years back in Fort Payne and at Fort Payne High School as being some of his most formative years. Here, he learned to work hard at life and to work hard at what he wanted out of life.  Finding success with Pete the Cat, Dean says there are now so many people involved with the writing and editing and overall scheme of things, that Pete is bigger than anything he ever imagined. He had to learn that he couldn’t do it all and to trust those placed in his circle to keep Pete alive and thriving.  He said he owes a debt of gratitude to all those involved with Pete’s success.

He recently had good reason to return to his hometown when he was presented with the opportunity to paint Pete on what is known as the old Sawyer building in the historic district of downtown of Fort Payne.

Dean made the object of his obsession easy to find when he painted the tallest Pete the Cat to date in his old hometown.  Dean returned to Fort Payne in August of 2022 and began work on the painting.  He recalls, “it was steamy and a blazing hot sun beating down on me for the most part with a little rain mixed in during the 2 full days it took me to paint Pete.”

The mural welcomes you into downtown Fort Payne and can erupt a chuckle and crack a smile out of even the grumpiest of persons. James says of his masterpiece, “paintings have to speak to me while I am drawing them. Some will illicit changes while this one spoke loud and clear to leave as is. Sometimes I will paint Pete and something about the image makes me want to make changes and so I will tweak it. But when I stepped back to survey my work on this one, I knew it was done.” Dean endeared, “this will probably go down as one of the greatest opportunities I have ever got to do. It was an honor for me to be able to do this. I just hope Pete blesses Fort Payne like he has blessed me.”

Not long after painting the tallest Pete in Fort Payne, the man who was one of the tallest figures in Dean’s life, his father, passed away after a battle with cancer.  Dean comments, “my father was my first influencer in the arts. I remember when I was in the first grade and my dad, who was an artist himself, would draw for me and leave the prints on the kitchen table. That is where I got my first love for drawing. His loss has hit me hard.” Dean said it was evident just how raw his emotions were when he was doing a reading of some of his books at a school, an activity he is often asked to do. He became overwhelmed with memories of his father and had to pause in his reading to compose himself.

Dean was used to going to elementary schools to read to the children. He recently was asked to speak at a high school, something he never thought he would be doing, addressing teenagers.  “My books are not geared towards them”, says Dean. “Yet, I was met with the reality that they grew up with my books. Many were telling me that Pete was their childhood. A humbling and rewarding experience to know that a generation has aged with my books”, says Dean.

Dean says of his work, “all I am trying to do is make someone smile. All any of us want is to make a living but to enjoy what we do and want it to make people happy. I hope that is what Pete the Cat does for everyone who comes across his path.”

Dean never lost his love for his hometown and has never forgot from where he came, humble beginnings with a great number of people who inspired and encouraged him along the way. He closed with saying, “I hope my books do the same for my readers.” You could say Dean turned out to be one cool and groovy cat himself!

Where to spot Pete the Cat in Fort Payne:

4th Street and Gault Avenue North
The World’s Tallest Pete the Cat Mural

Follow the sidewalk into downtown Fort Payne to Pete the Cat’s Alley where you will also see a Walk of Fame Star. Here, you will find Pete in several murals in the alley.

Continue down main street to 1st and Gault to Katherine’s Framing and Gifts for a wealth of Pete the Cat merchandise and Dean’s paintings of Pete’s adventures in Fort Payne. A life size Pete the Cat stands on the corner, purrfect for pictures. Pete loves selfies!! Be sure to hashtag him and Fort Payne on your social media platforms with:


Additional Shopping in Downtown Fort Payne to consider:

The Poppery on Main at 220 Gault Avenue North offers fresh popped corn in a variety of zesty, sweet and tantalizing flavors as well as fresh made candies. 256-979-1767

Tiger Lily Flowers & Gifts at 232 Gault Avenue North offers gifts for every occasion! The business recently relocated into downtown, bringing new life to one of the historic buildings.256-845-5152