Call me Willie.

A white whale has been set free inside Kokomo’s Foster Park, beckoning to passers-by along Wildcat Creek, urging them to stop and look and even step into its enormous, toothless jaw.

Its tail, mid flip, one end pointed toward the ground, the other flexing upwards, belies the whale’s otherwise stationary posture. Its mouth stands lazily, permanently agape, as it has for 55 years.

This whale, with its sleepy blue eyes, is far more welcoming than Captain Ahab’s obsession.

But its history may be equally bizarre.

Willie the Whale has been an iconic Hoosier landmark since 1964, the backdrop of hundreds of thousands of photos through the decades, chronicling trips to the Indianapolis Zoo, an amusement park and even a mini-golf course.

Now, he’s in Kokomo.

Willie, 16 feet tall, was placed inside Foster Park on April 25, the newest addition to an oddball Kokomo team that already included a 17-foot-tall metal praying mantis; a stuffed steer that in its day weighed more than 4,500 pounds; and a tree stump over 1,500 years old.

His journey to Kokomo has been a bizarre one, from a debut at the Indianapolis Zoo’s original site to a stint as a withered remnant in an overgrown field, followed by a mini-rebirth in 2016 when the whale was hoisted onto the final hole of a mini-golf course at the Indianapolis Museum of Art.

“We’ve added all kinds of pieces of art to the trail, and doing quite a bit of bike riding, you’re always looking for places of interest to stop and rest, get your picture taken. Just making Kokomo unique,” said Kokomo City Controller Randy Morris.

“There’s only so many historical artifacts out there, and the opportunity to have one in Kokomo that actually means a lot to a lot of people – the opportunity was there and we felt like we had the right place to put it.”

The most comprehensive history of Willie was told by the Indianapolis Star in an article published in 2015. It was the Star’s story, in fact, that first caught the attention of Kokomo city officials and sparked interest in the whale.

“It was talked about kind of like as a treasure, or a historic piece of art that was going by the wayside,” noted Morris.

Created by a former Ball State professor who ran an art workshop in Muncie, the fiberglass Willie debuted at the end of a lake in the Indianapolis Zoo’s original East 30th Street location, according to the paper.

Willie the Whale in Indy

This postcard shows families feeding ducks by Willie the Whale, at the Indianapolis Zoo, in 1965.

“It started off as a tropical fish tank that was in the mouth of it, and what they discovered was that fish were dying at a regular pace inside that fish tank because it got so hot,” added Morris. Willie at one point even become a reptile exhibit, he noted.

“It was like a novelty, that if you went to the zoo at that time, the children’s zoo, you had to have your picture taken there,” said Morris. “It was like the main attraction, besides the animals.”

The city zoo, which originally opened as a children’s zoo, closed in 1987, re-opening one year later in White River State Park. Willie, despite the new zoo expanding to five times its original size, was left behind.

He later resurfaced at the Boogie Mountain water park near Shadeland Avenue and I-70, followed by a stint at the Fun Spot Amusement Park & Zoo in Angola, noted the Star.  

It was then, before the Fun Spot lost its joy and closed in 2008, during the Great Recession, that Willie was painted black and given red lips, flashier eyes (including prominent eyelashes) and a more defined smile.

After the amusement park’s closure, Willie sat, beached, at his Angola home.

A picture taken during the whale’s dark ages shows him cast before an abandoned water slide, brown weeds growing to nearly half his full height, obscuring the tail flip that once leapt out of the Indianapolis Zoo lake.

In 2015, Willie caught the attention of Rushville mayor Mike Pavey, and he was sold to the city “with intentions of making him a roadside attraction or piece of outdoor public art for the city,” according to the Star, which, like it did for Kokomo officials, gave Pavey the idea of freeing Willie.

Kokomo at the time was also looking for “artistic” objects to place along its trail system, said Morris, but the city lost out to Rushville during its first attempt at Willie.

Willie the Whale

Grandmother Carol McKoon took Kailynn McKoon, 7, and Mason McKoon, 4, to visit with Willie the Whale at Foster Park on May 14, 2019. Tim Bath | Kokomo Tribune

“We had some interest in [Willie], and we missed it,” he explained, noting there were then five groups interested in the iconic statue.

So the whale began the next leg of his journey, heading to east-central Indiana.

“Willie the Whale was very popular when I was a kid; you went to the Indianapolis Zoo and you saw Willie,” Pavey told the Rushville Republican in August 2015.

“Our thought was we figured Willie was going to be destroyed. … I felt it could be crazy, but kind of fun. Everyone knows this whale in our age group, we all knew who he was as kids.”

In August 2016, Willie arrived at the Indianapolis Museum of Art “after a leisurely swim/drive from the City of Rushville,” the museum posted on Facebook. There, Willie became a major attraction on the 18th hole of “Mini Golf at the IMA” as a temporary loan from Rushville.

It was during his time on the golf course, despite the city's previous swing-and-miss, that Willie's future in Kokomo was cemented.

Kokomo and Rushville, explained Morris, use the same agency to book the two cities’ summer concert series events.

So when Morris traveled to Indianapolis to do the TV news rounds alongside Brian Sheehan, Rushville’s director of special projects and community development, a trip meant to promote summer concerts led instead to a conversation about a whale.

“He’d been to Kokomo and knew that we had the praying mantis. We do like unusual art. Like it or not, we like unusual art,” said Morris.

Sheehan asked Morris whether Kokomo would have any interest in Willie.

“He goes, ‘We don’t really know what we’re going to do with it, we’re talking about splitting it in half and putting it on the side of a building,’” recalled Morris. “I’m like, ‘Man, really, is that the right thing do with it?’

“He goes, ‘Well, if you’re interested in it, we’d be more than happy to let you have it.’”

Morris and Kokomo Parks Superintendent Torrey Roe later drove to Rushville, and the city of Kokomo eventually bought Willie for $10,000, which included transportation costs, in a deal completed in September 2018.

The city had by that time contracted with Justin Olson – who runs Olson Paint Studios in Indianapolis and painted the “Northern Indiana Supply Company Inc.” seen on the north side of 306 Riverfront District – to restore Willie.

Olson said in an interview that Willie was in two pieces when his company received him, his tail completely detached, with five layers of paint.

Willie the Whale photo from city

This photo of Willie the Whale was taken by Kokomo Parks Superintendent Torrey Roe before the start of the statue's restoration.

Willie the Whale photo from city 2

This photo, taken by Kokomo Parks Superintendent Torrey Roe, shows Willie the Whale's detached tail, which was re-attached during a lengthy restoration process.

It took nearly a week-and-a-half to prep Willie’s body, said Olson, a process that included sanding and scraping and using a paint removal machine to prep the whale’s surface for a new coat of white paint.

Wood was used to fortify Willie, to make it possible for him to be whole again. It took a month to get the whale back in shape and into one piece, Olson added.

“He was pretty beat up,” he said. “He was a mess when we got him.”

About the decision to have Willie painted white, his original color, Morris said: “It’s kind of like having an antique car. Some people like them changed and some people like them original. It just feels right to be original.”

Olson, meanwhile, held a personal connection to Willie.

The owner of a cottage on Lake James, Olson would drive by the whale when he was positioned at Fun Spot in Angola.

“I drove by for years and years,” he said.

“Small world.”

Olson said he realized how much Willie meant to Hoosier history fanatics when he found a Facebook page dedicated to Indiana’s past and saw hundreds of comments giving information about Willie and others requesting more.

“It was exciting,” he said about restoring Willie. “We had a lot of people stop in while we were working on him that wanted to see him.”

It is Olson’s hope that Willie will be around for another 50 years, a goal he worked to reach by using “top notch” materials.

“I hope people want to get up and see him,” he noted.

A placard detailing Willie’s history will soon be placed inside his jaw, showing the long, iconic journey that finally brought him to Kokomo.

“It’s great. He’s a great addition,” said Morris, who is on the hunt for pictures from city residents that they took with Willie when he was at the Indianapolis Zoo or another previous location.

George Myers can be reached at 765-454-8585, by email at george.myers@kokomotribune.com or on Twitter @gmyerskt.

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George Myers covers city and county government. He joined the Kokomo Tribune on November 18, 2014.