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An Extended Conversation With Paul Linnman On The Legacy Of Blown-Up Whales

WhaleWatchers01.jpg
Oregon Historical Society
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OHS

The following is an extended interview with former KATU-TV News reporter Paul Linnman, conducted by KLCC's Brian Bull just ahead of the 50th anniversary of one of Oregon's oddest incidents: the controlled demolition of a sperm whale carcass that washed ashore in Florence.  The blast propelled heavier-than-expected chunks of rotting, rancid blubber into the sky, and Linnman into viral fame that lasts to this day.

Bull: What was the story you expected to cover for KATU, and what was the story you ended up with?

Linnman:  Well, not much difference between what we expected and what occurred. My problem was, I didn’t want to cover the story to begin with. I was a young reporter, I was 23 years old. But by that time I’d already covered a presidential primary in Oregon, and spent a week with all the candidates including Robert Kennedy, and Eugene McCarthy, and George McGovern, I mean, you name them. Even George Wallace.  I covered an all-night negotiation, when the Oregon State Penitentiary was on fire when the inmates took it over in a riot. And I produced a half-hour special on that. 

And I had become a reporter, even though young, that Channel 2, and our assignment editor felt he could count on to cover a story well. So I was pleased, and having a great time early in my career.  And then the news director called me in and said, “Why don’t you go to the coast today and cover the story.”  And I said, “What are you talking about?” He said, “Well, they’re going to dispose a whale down there.” “And I said, “Eh…can somebody else do that?” (laughs)

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Credit Oregon Historical Society/KATU-TV
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Footage from KATU-TV2 shows a car smashed by a large piece of rotten blubber.

He said “They’re going to use dynamite,” I said, “When do I go? (laughs)  and actually the story was the following day, and  they put us on a private aircraft that the station had leased and l had never heard  of that happening before.  So I figured it was a pretty big deal. And so when we got down there, sure enough it took place much as we expected it would, and the explosion if you’ve seen it before, and you probably have, it looks like any explosion you see in the movies and so forth.  

And so that part of it was expected. What wasn’t expected was that it would blow whale parts all over everybody that was there.  And then it became kinda scary, there was a feeling on the part of myself and the photographer Doug Brazil, that were at one point running for our lives as this very dense material hit the ground all around us. And that was the unexpected apart, up to that moment it went as planned.  And you know the rest. And to this day I refer to it as the whale that refuses to die.  Because it’s been a part of my life virtually every day in the last 50 years. Somebody’s mentioned it to me one way or another. 

Bull:  That segues very nicely into my next question, Paul.  This story could’ve been gradually forgotten over the decades were it not for social media.  What do you think of its resurgence through YouTube video and Twitter?

Linnman:  Well, you know I don’t’ really consider it resurgence because it has been around for so long, and certainly social media and the internet itself have kept it alive. And I really – as you imply – I really don’t believe it would have lived on had we not had the internet and so many worldwide views.  But the fact is, it’s rediscovered all the time by individuals.  Y’know, I played golf with a guy yesterday, a young guy, he had never heard of it.  He grew up in Oregon, he’d never heard of it.  And I’m constantly contacted by people that had just seen the video, and wanted more information.  

So…two things in my mind:  Dave Barry who was the excellent features writer for the Miami newspaper formerly and a great book writer, he wrote about it. And he lectured about it in his lecture series, as he traveled the country, and that helped keep the story alive. But those two things combined to keep it in the public’s mind over all of these years.

I also don’t think that it would have lived on had there been fatalities, or had it been a tragic story. It became a funny story because of what happened and the unexpected side of it, but I think I‘m very, very thankful that nobody was hurt, nobody was injured, certainly nobody was killed. I think otherwise that story might have been remembered from time to time tragically. Not as it’s remembered, in good fun today.

Bull:  I think that’s a very good point. Why do you think this story still resonates with people 50 years later?

Linnman:  Well, for the same reason I mentioned. If you’ve seen the whale and you bump into somebody that hasn’t seen the video, you want to show it.  And you’ll send it off to your friend, and your friend will send it off to his or her friends, and it just continues to live on in that way. I’m continually bumping into people who are traveling internationally, or they’re in Japan or they’re in Paris, or they’re in Italy, and oh guess what, they’re showing the whale over there. The BBC in particular has loved the story; I don’t know how many times I’ve been interviewed by the BBC in London about the whale.  And (laughs) it just has a way of capturing people’s attention, and if I find out you haven’t seen it, I want you to see it and you’ll do the same with the people you know.   

Bull: BTW, you talk about being a reporter at 23 and you’d already done these very remarkable stories.  At the same time many reporters feel that they are going to be remembered for one story, for better or worse. Do you feel like you’re branded with this whale story?

Linnman:  I suppose in certain ways I am.  And I’ve certainly…I’ve got to tell you, Brian, I’ve gone up and down with how I feel about the whale through the years. There were times 10-15 -20 years ago, where I just assumed it not be mentioned to mentioned to me ever again. I was really, really tired of it. But then I got over that, and I kind of accepted what was going to continue to happen in my life as a result of that one story, and my bottom line conclusion is…most of us, even reporters who do very good work, are not remembered at all.  And so if you’re remembered for anything, that’s a pretty good deal.  Mine is a kind of a silly remembrance, but I’ll take it (both laugh)

Bull:  You’re going to be part of an Oregon Historical Society Zoom event revisiting this exploding fish story Thursday night. What do you expect from the event?

Linnman: The same questions I’ve (laughs) been asked for 50 years.  And Kerry Tymchuk (OHS Executive Director) is a good friend, and we always have a lot of fun when we’re together.  So I expect it to be a little more humorous than it might otherwise be. As you might’ve noticed as we’ve talked so far, I’m sorta serious up this subject, and I probably shouldn’t.  So I know when I’m with Kerry it’s going to be fun. I hope he asks me what the ultimate return for me was with the exploding whale. Because that’s a question I’m rarely asked.  I’m often asked how much money did I make off this because clearly it’s been shown so many times, I must have become wealthy as a result. And the fact is, I have not.  I made $117 when I sold it to the ABC Weekend News with Sam Donaldson the weekend following the explosion. And that was it.

But I have the greatest happening in my life as a result of the exploding whale. Years ago I was contacted by a graduate business school in Italy.  And it’s a school that 50 American Universities send students to, including the University of Oregon and Portland State.  The school is called the Consortium Institute for Management and Businesses Analysis, and it’s located in Asolo, Italy which is about an hour northwest of Venice. They asked me to come and lecture at the school, because they were using the book I’d written about it in their international problem solving classes. So what’s a better solution than dynamite to this problem? (laughs)

So I ended up going to the school. I not lectured their problem solving classes, I lectured to their journalism classes, I lectured to their life skills and life planning classes. And I was engaged by the most brilliant students from America -in Italy- on a subject that was not important at all, and they asked me to join the board of the school and come back several times a year. And I wasn’t able to do that. But I have been back three times with my wife, and spoken to the students over there and enjoyed Venice, and that has been the ultimate return for me from the exploding whale. And few people know about it, because I’m rarely asked ‘What did you get out of it?’  Free trips to Europe with nice honorariums.  Pretty good thing, don’t you think?

Bull: I think that’s a very good deal (laughs).  Are there lessons to be learned from this incident?

Linnman: Well, I suppose. As soon as the story aired on Channel 2 back in 1970, we started hearing from any number of governmental organizations, lot of fire departments, police departments, hazmat teams, we heard from all branches of the military.  And what they said in their officialese in making their request for copies of the video, is that “Our personnel need to know that anything is possible. That the most surprising thing in the world can happen. And as we go into these emergency situations, we need to have our eyes and ears open and our minds on to what’s going on to prepare for any eventuality.”  

And that’s how they always, always, always ask for a copy of the whale that was very important. And that was the lesson learned that anything could happen.  We knew though that really all they wanted to do was watch the video and have some laughs.  And so (laughs) Doug Brazil, the photographer responsible… especially those who would indicate in their communications that it’d be a fun thing to see, or funny…those who just stuck with officialese, he’d delay sending it off to them (laughs).

Bull: This Spring, the City of Florence actually announced a new namesake for one of its city parks. And as it turns out,  it’s been unveiled as “Exploding Whale Memorial Park.”  I was curious if you’d been out there or not.

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Credit City of Florence
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Exploding Whale Memorial Park sign with intact whale mascot.

Linnman:  I have not, and I was scheduled to be.  My wife and I were asked to be Grand Marshals of the Rhododendron Festival Parade in May. That was canceled. We did a virtual parade and sent down some video. And then when they announced the name of the new park, which is along the river by the way and  it’s nowhere near the explosion site on the beach. The river changed it course and revealed some land that they made into park.  And that became the exploding whale memorial park. 

But haven’t been to see it yet, I was supposed to go down this month, for another plaque unveiling at the actual site but that’s been cancelled as well.  Or postponed. So I haven’t been down there yet, but I will tell you I was interviewed by a reporter from  Scotland, at the time that park was named…Devonshire, Scotland…where the town council, you may have read this…was using the unveiling of the park and the story of the whale as a warning to its citizens during COVID to take every precaution.

Bull:  No, I had not heard about that (laughs).  It certainly still has a life of its own, and I’m guessing Paul, when you and I have both left this earth, 50 more years from now, that they’ll still be talking about it I suspect.

Linnman:  I guess so, it’s very, very possible. And I still enjoy talking to people that might recognize me from my work in television or what not.  They always say the same thing, I don’t care if it’s 8 o’clock in the morning, they’ll say “Hey, I bet I’m the first guy to mention the whale to you today”, and I’ll say, “No, a guy half an hour ago at Starbucks brought it up. So you’re second.” (laughs) I look forward to these kinds of interviews with people like you. And the folks that want to talk about the whale, I’m resigned to answering any and all questions I possibly can, and if it’s still happening 50 years from now, they’re just going to have to guess what might’ve happened.

Bull:  Well, Paul Linmann, thank you so much for your time. And I really appreciate the fact that your career did not end in 1970 under a cascading chunk of whale blubber.  It sounds like you’ve gone on to do some very good things past that incident.  So thank you again.

Linnman:  My pleasure.  Great questions, and thanks for having me on.

Copyright 2020, KLCC.

Brian Bull joined the KLCC News Team in June 2016. In his 25+ years as a public media journalist, he's worked at NPR, Twin Cities Public Television, South Dakota Public Broadcasting, Wisconsin Public Radio, and ideastream in Cleveland. His reporting has netted dozens of accolades, including four national Edward R. Murrow Awards (19 regional), the Ohio Associated Press' Best Reporter Award, Best Radio Reporter from the Native American Journalists Association, and the PRNDI/NEFE Award for Excellence in Consumer Finance Reporting.
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