Throughout his time in Western Washington, Ivan the Gorilla® was adored by the area’s youth, especially during the Christmas season. The children of Madison Elementary in Olympia, WA decided to show their appreciation to Ivan’s friendship in the winter of 1985. While spending time in the bedroom of his 1600 square foot compound, the children & adults of Madison Elementary gathered for a special event, an Ivan Christmas.
A Christmas Tree for Ivan
The Children created custom paper ornaments, candy cane treats & popcorn garland to adorn Ivan’s Christmas tree, a banana or two hiding amongst the decorations. Carefully wrapped presents addressed to Ivan embellished the base of his tree, quietly waiting for their Ivan moment.
As always, the children anxiously waited on the other side of the glass for Ivan’s arrival. Knowing something afoot, Ivan suspectingly sauntered into his main compound. Beholding the colorful lines of paper garland that draped festively about and the Christmas tree dedicated to him. After greeting the familiar audience with his signature playfulness. His attention quickly turned to the decorated tree, among the first, the popcorn garland, is this edible? One by one the moment for each present came to reveal the new treasures inside. A new soccer ball, a pair of 80’s fashion acid wash Jeans, tennis shoes, a carton of milk and a favorite stuffed animal, all new playthings for him to enjoy and perhaps destroy.
Heart of a Community
These moments reflected the true heart of a community, coming together during this wintery season for one goal, Ivan. Scores of children now grown will always reflect upon their own Ivan moments & carry with them his many lessons. As he once did long ago, he continues to change & shape our world without ever saying a word.
To view the video for this Ivan Christmas moment, please visit our Ivan the Gorilla® YouTube channel. If you would like to purchase a Christmas card that reflects this Ivan Christmas then please visit Ivan’s Shop for details.
Learn from his Legacy by knowing his story through his past with each new chapter of the Ivan Chronicles
For more content about this event, check out Ivan’s Bonus Board!
The year was 1964. The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 signed into law by President Dwight D. Eisenhower on June 29, 1956, gave birth to the construction of the new Interstate 5. The Superhighway would stretch 277 miles across the state of Washington closely following ancient trails once used by the indigenous Native Americans & later trappers from the Hudson’s Bay Company.
Northwest Construction Company
The State issued the contract to the Northwest Construction Company founded & operated at the time by Paul Fiorito. The company moved several million yards of earth & paved the new Interstate 5 from Olympia to Everett. A tribute to the ingenuity & innovation of America in the 20th century. During construction of the Interstate close to the present-day Tacoma Dome, Mr. Fiorito invited his Brother-in-law Earl Irwin to visit the site. Ever the promoter, Mr. Irwin made the most of any opportunity, he therefore extended the invitation to Larry Johnston & his new little brother Ivan. A recently discovered B&I document highlights securing permission from then-President Johnson for Ivan to operate the paving machine that built I-5.
Ivan & his crew
“Just another adventure with Ivan. This photo was taken in very close proximity to the current location of the Tacoma Dome. As always, Ivan was a bit standoffish at first but per the norm when something caught his interest he was off for another adventure”
Jerry Fiorito, the son of Paul Fiorito would often visit his father at one of his many construction sites. However, this particular day offered a far more unique experience, his first meeting with Ivan the Gorilla®!
“Wild experience for me! Ivan threw himself into my arms with no warning at what to expect! Amazing the strength of such a small being! The Paving crew loved this experience & it stirred many conversations for several days”
Marylou Borgert had also attended this event with her father Earl Irwin & fondly recollects the moment with Ivan the Gorilla building Interstate 5!
“At first Jerry looked a little scared & as usual Ivan wanted to get going. He squirmed & jumped from here to there, pausing a little at the machinry before finally falling in love with all the gadgets”
The Solex Electric Bicycle company wanted to introduce their new motorized bicycle & feature a photo shoot with Ivan for commercial purposes. Ivan & I would take many adventures together, but he had especially loved to ride on motorcycles with me. Therefore, it was natural for him to hop on my shoulders & take this opportunity to go for a spin on this new bike. Typically, when we rode motorcycles together he would stand on the back of the seat, wrap his arms around my neck & enjoy the wind in his little fuzzy head.
My Grandparents, Earl & Constance Irwin, started the B&I Circus store back in the early 40’s and from my earliest memories, Ivan was always a part of my life and family. My sisters and I often state how incredible our childhood was, largely due to the influence of our close family state. As a child, it was always an amazing experience to go to work with my Grandmother at the B&I. I always had the run of the place and back then there was so many fun things for a kid to do.
The path for each of my adventures
As a kid, the path for each one of my adventures would be pretty much
the same. It would start at my Grandmother’s office and it would end at the most captivating place. Along the
way there were many sites that would invigorate any child’s imagination. I would take a ride on the merry-go-round, play one of the many dozens of arcade games, and look for the latest toy at what was then the state’s largest toy store & arcade center.
As I made my way to the end, there was a place I would always enjoy letting my mind wander and my imagination take shape. It was a long hallway filled with all of these black and white photos of the many events that had taken place at the B&I in years long past.
I never knew my grandfather.
He had passed just 3 weeks before I was born,
but from my earliest memory, everyone had always said to me “How I wish you
could have known him”. The B&I was a dream of one man and the pictures on
this wall had represented a past that I could never know; one of laughter,
happiness, and childhood dreams.
These pictures almost seemed to move like a movie that would play out in my mind. From the Ice-block melting contests to epic Easter egg hunts; from the elephants, lions, chimpanzees, and seals to Miss B&I, the store’s own hydroplane.
The events welcomed many a celebrity from that era – the Batman promotion which featured Burt Ward who portrayed Robin, famed boxers such as Max Baer, the sitting governor of our state, Albert Rosellini, and of course Cisco Kid. The western icon drew an overwhelming audience of approximately 500,000 to the B&I, a number that warranted my grandparents to place him on the roof of the building to simply wave at fans as they drove by on what was then Highway 99.
And of course, the pinnacle of them all, was our friend Ivan.
From this wall of memories I would make my way to the end of my journey to Ivan.
There is no way to describe this experience.
There is no way to describe this experience
since our language offers no words with a meaning that could properly represent
it. The closest could only be “magic”. The way Ivan had interacted with
children and how he had commanded their imagination was remarkable. His
intelligence, compassion, and humor would somehow speak to each one
individually, almost like his sole attention was focused on every child
simultaneously. With this he became their friend.
To gaze into his eyes from the perspective of youth was something that simply changed you.
As time went by.
As time went by, our family’s relationship
with Ivan would come into question and we were confronted as to what to do
next. At an age that was deemed geriatric for his species, we knew he needed a
new home. Yet, we were worried that a move could perhaps cause him irreparable
We considered the option of him staying with
us. From our perspective, he was part of us, our family, and part of a
The other perspective we would hear was that
it would be better to risk that harm than to live out his days with our
As things came to a head, our once strong family structure, already under unrelated pressures, had shattered. This was the tipping point and a change would soon come to pass.
One final visit.
With this knowledge, I visited the B&I one
last time (in the mid 90’s). I started my adventure like I had always done
before and I made all of my usual stops. As I walked down the hallway to Ivan,
I let the pictures of days long gone play out in my mind for one last time. There
was a certain comfort in the contrast of these black and white photos to the
shaded colors of our reality.
When I reached Ivan, it seemed like he could
almost sense a change was on the horizon. From every fiber of my being, I
wished him well and let him know that even though he may be scared, he will
always be loved – it will just be from a whole new family and a whole new
community. With that I had said my goodbyes and left, all the while knowing
that this would be my last adventure at the “biggest little store in the world”.
To this day, I have yet to return.
The years passed.
As the years passed, we had heard of Ivan’s life
through various media. We had chosen not to visit because we did not feel
welcome and we had to accept the fact that he had new life to live, just as we
did. Still, I had never forgotten my friend. How could I?
In the following years, I knew he would soon pass and had decided to reach out to Zoo Atlanta in the hopes they would accept my role in his life, perhaps granting me the opportunity to visit with him again.
Upon my visit, his primary caretaker, Jodi,
met me at the gate and escorted me to his compound. She did so while recanting her
own stories of Ivan. She led me into a vast compound with so many gorillas that
it basically blew me away.
One thought had struck me. Why are they so small?
It was because Ivan was so big and larger than life. By comparison, the other gorillas seemed so much smaller.
At the end, we came to the very last compound. Ivan immediately rushed to the bars when he saw a couple of males with his friend Jodi. I stopped and stood resolute, looking him straight in the eyes. I will never truly know if he had recognized me but, in my heart, I knew he did. His demeanor had immediately changed and he became the ever-playful guy I had always remembered.
For the next few hours I had sat with him, reliving these shared memories. I told him what had happened with his family, about the ones that we had lost and the new ones that we had gained. I told him as much as I could about his family. He may have never understood our spoken word, but he did understand our soul. It was important to me for him to know what had happened to the people who had once called him son, brother and uncle.
The individuality of every person is shaped by those closest to them.
During this journey I have often wondered what my life would be like if I had such an important piece of my puzzle removed. I know in my heart that my family had cared for and had loved Ivan like no other, yet I often question whether or not if it was right.
Is it right for any of his kind to have to live byourrules in habitats that we
create for them?
Is it right for their lives tobetaken when our children
get too close?
These are questions which bear a heavy weight
on myself and my family.
What would our lives be like and who would we behadwe never know Ivan?
The answer has many facets, but one fact remains true from any perspective. We wouldn’t be here today, taking part in a moment that has not only dedicated a monument in his honor but has started a cause in his name. Ivan had a brightness and a gravity that drew people to him. Even today, seven years after his passing, his legend continues to grow (and thrive) with every generation.
The need to share his story.
We have found compassion and warmth through viewing his younger years with the Johnston family, but I firmly believe that all aspects of his story should be shared. Only then can we understand who Ivan really was.
He was able to cross boundaries to show us how
alike his kind is to ours and how they should be regarded with an equal
respect. His story is far from over and the end of his circle has yet to
meet its beginning.
Spread our word to each that this cause is not only for one gorilla but for all gorillas, whenever they reside in the world we all share.
I have written this to share my memories with
you as a means of providing some understanding of our story. As with any story
ever told, there will always be the rise and the fall. Over the years, much has
been said of my family and it is something I choose to no longer shy away.
I think we have come to realize that as hard
as some moments were it, was still worth being part of this journey even though
we were simply characters in a dream of one man.