OQUAWKA, Ill. (WMBD) — Bob Larson and Tom McIntyre are back with another excellent adventure, and this time, it’s the story of how a dead elephant changed life in a small town and kick-started the career of a Hollywood writer, director, and producer.
Oquawka, IL is the county seat for Henderson County, situated on the Mississippi River. With a population of about 1,400 folks, it’s a sleepy river town with a fascinating history.
Oquawka is where Norma Jean the elephant is buried in a city park, not far from the swimming pool.
Norma Jean the elephant was the star of the Clark and Walters circus. In July 1972, the Circus was in Oquawka, and when a storm came up on the 17, a lightning bolt instantly killed Norma Jean.
With the circus leaving town, city officials were left with the problem of what to do with Norma Jean. They dug a big hole in the city park and nudged three tons of elephant into it and covered it over.
The saying is that if someone gives you lemons, you make lemonade, so when fate gave Oquawka a dead elephant in a city park, they made it a tourist attraction.
“After all, she’s not a human being, but she was a nice elephant. A lot of people loved her. Kind of want to be good to a dead elephant, that’s about the way I had to look at it as well,” said Wade Meloan, a man who raised money for a Norma Jean monument.
Meloan was asked about it during an interview by John Behnke, Bradley graduate and Southern Illinois University graduate student in cinema. He came from Monmouth, and he knew the story of Norma Jean.
The 15-minute film about the elephant and Oquawka won a student Academy Award. That film gave him the start of a 30-year career in Hollywood. Norma Jean isn’t just a part of Oquawka’s history.
“When you go by sometimes, you’ll see peanuts that people leave on top of the grave or in front. Occasionally there are some flowers out there. I still get hits from that on Vimeo. So, I think it still catches people’s attention,” said writer and producer John Behnke.
More people have likely seen Norma Jean on Behnke’s film than ever saw her in person, and that’s not a bad monument, either.