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 harm.
We considered the option of him staying with us. From our perspective, he was part of us, our family, and part of a community.
The other perspective we would hear was that it would be better to risk that harm than to live out his days with our blasphemous family.
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.Earl Borgert
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 by our rules in habitats that we create for them?
Is it right for their lives to be taken 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 be had we 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.