By Mary Giorgio
On April 18, 1964, the Washington Park Children’s Zoo opened to much fanfare. Located on East 30th Street in Indianapolis, the zoo featured penguins, camels, buffalos, and more. In its first year of operation, more than 270,000 people visited the new zoo.
The zoo featured large fiberglass statues of animals, made by Ball State professor Richard Kishel. His iconic giraffe and whale statues became instant favorites of the many children who visited the zoo.
The large, 26-foot-tall fiberglass whale was affectionately known as Willie by his many admirers. He was located at the edge of the zoo’s lake. Children could walk into the whale’s large, open mouth, to view fish from a glass floor. For two decades, Willie delighted adults and children alike.
Then, on November 1, 1987, the Washington Park Children’s Zoo closed its doors in preparation for a cross-town move. The zoo’s new home, located in downtown Indianapolis in White River State Park, was a much larger facility. The zoo was renamed the Indianapolis Zoo.
Zoo officials made the decision not to transport Willie to the new location. In the ensuing decades, Willie searched for a new permanent home with little success. The large statue was initially sold to an east side water park known as Boogie Mountain. When it later closed, Willie was taken to Angola, Indiana. There, he became a featured attraction at the Fun Spot Amusement Park and Zoo. Willie was given a facelift and painted black.
Once again, Willie’s new home didn’t last. Fun Spot closed amidst the economic upheaval of 2008’s Great Recession. Between 2008 and 2015, Willie sat, alone, at the closed park.
In 2015, Willie got another chance to delight Hoosiers after the Indianapolis Star ran an article about the fate of the old whale. The article caught the attention of Rushville mayor, Mike Pavey, who fondly remembered visiting the great whale as a child. The City of Rushville purchased Willie for $1,000, intending to turn him into a piece of public art.
While contemplating the statue’s next use, Rushville officials were approached by the Indiana Arts Council about a greater purpose for Willie. Again, the whale was on the move.
This time, Willie ended up at the Indianapolis Museum of Art (now Newfields). He became a featured attraction in the museum’s miniature golf outdoor exhibit. The golf course was designed to celebrate Indiana’s vibrant history. Willie sat at the 18th hole for the six-month period that the exhibit was open.