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Mr. Peanut legacy lives on

Most people in Suffolk, even recent transplants, know by now that Planters Peanuts and its founder, Amedeo Obici, have a huge presence and legacy in Suffolk.

But fewer people know about the origin of Planters’ spokesnut, Mr. Peanut. For example, did you know he has a first name? And have you ever noticed the eye on which he wears his monocle has switched back and forth throughout the years?

Most importantly, did you know Mr. Peanut was created right here in Suffolk?

After Obici, a young Italian immigrant, opened a Planters facility in Suffolk to be closer to the peanut producers, he needed to market the products of his rapidly growing company.

Therein lay his desire for a trademark. And the process that led to that trademark has become the stuff of legend.

“From the very beginning, he was looking for a trademark, something to set his company apart,” Robert Slade said during a talk on Tuesday sponsored by the Suffolk Public Library and Suffolk-Nansemond Historical Society. The event proved so popular that Slade had to repeat himself — about 80 to 85 people showed up, enough to fill the small room twice.

Enter Antonio Gentile, Slade’s uncle. Back in 1916, he was a 13-year-old boy growing up in Suffolk’s Hall Place neighborhood.

Gentile responded to a call from Amedeo Obici for something that could help advertise his product.

“Allegedly, there was a contest,” Slade said Tuesday, though he admits he’s never been able to find any evidence of a contest and, if there was one, doesn’t know how “formal” it was.

“My feeling is that there was a contest,” said Slade, who now resides in Wake Forest, N.C. “I believe that there was. My grandmother said it happened; my mother said it happened; his older sister said it happened.”

At any rate, Gentile produced 11 drawings of a peanut with a face, legs and arms doing various activities, including selling peanuts and singing a tune. Obici paid him $5 for the drawings.

“It just sort of boggles my mind the creativity he threw at this,” Slade said.

Obici had the drawings enhanced by an artist, who added the top hat, monocle, cane, gloves and spats. Exactly who that artist was is another point of confusion.

Some accounts say it was Chicago artist Andrew Wallach. Others say it was a Planters employee who also lived in Hall Place, Frank Krize Sr.

Slade tends to favor Krize, mostly because the obituary for his daughter, Emilie Krize Darden, lists her father as the man who enhanced Mr. Peanut.

“I can’t prove it,” he said. “That’s just my feeling. If you have any appreciation for Mr. Obici, you know he was loyal to his employees.”

The idea of an anthropomorphized peanut wasn’t anything new. In fact, a December 1902 advertisement in Good Housekeeping featured a peanut — with legs, arms, a top hat, monocle, cane, gloves and spats.

It’s possible Obici had seen the advertisement, Slade said.

Mr. Peanut was an instant hit. He first appeared in a regional advertisement in a Connecticut paper in July 1917. The following year, he made his national debut in the Saturday Evening Post.

Slade noted most of Planters’ marketing was geared toward children, with Mr. Peanut featured on everything from toys to child-friendly eating utensils.

“Mr. Obici was no dummy,” he said. “His theory was, ‘If I get them young, they’ll keep eating.’”

Gentile’s life outside of the Mr. Peanut drawings was just as interesting. He was one of eight children — six of whom lived to adulthood — of Italian immigrants who settled on South Main Street. Alexander and Pulcheria Gentile came through Ellis Island. He was a tailor, and she was a homemaker.

Gentile graduated from Jefferson High School as the valedictorian. He went on to attend the University of Virginia for his undergraduate degree and medical school.

While there’s another family legend about Obici paying Gentile’s way through school, what’s more interesting is that older siblings in the Gentile family were expected to start helping their younger siblings through school as soon as they graduated.

“It was always one helping the other to get through,” Slade said. “That’s something I’m very proud of.”

After Gentile’s graduation, the Obicis hosted a reception for him at Bay Point Farm, part of which is now Sleepy Hole Golf Course, where the home still stands.

Gentile became a physician at the Elizabeth Buxton Hospital in Newport News, and on Dec. 28, 1938, he married the former Delcy Ann Maney.

Unfortunately, his marriage didn’t last long. He died on Nov. 16, 1939, while on duty at the hospital. An autopsy showed arterial sclerosis and an undiagnosed kidney ailment.

Gentile had always been a generous man, perhaps to his widow’s detriment. Upon an accounting of the estate, it was discovered that about 10 percent of it was owed on loans he had cosigned to make sure patients could be taken care of.

“His legacy lived on beyond his death,” Slade said.

Furthermore, a colleague finished research on anomalies of the biliary tract Gentile had left uncompleted and published it in Gentile’s name.

Maney remarried and, in 1940, received the original drawings back from Planters. In turn, she gave them to Slade’s mother, her sister-in-law.

Last year, Slade donated the original drawings to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, where they are now featured in an 8,000-square-foot exhibit on American enterprise.

Oh, and about Mr. Peanut’s first name? It’s Percy, revealed by Planters in an early comic booklet for kids explaining the spokesnut’s origin legend.