, Newburyport, MA

August 29, 2013

Free Tilly

Iconic sculpture will be repaired and brought back to beach


---- — Tilly the Whale was moved from its longtime home yesterday, to the delight of onlookers and the men who worked to rescue it.

It doesn’t really matter if you know it as Pinkie, due to its original hot pink stucco skin; Blinkie, because of its big eyes that lit up; Jesse, after Salisbury lifeguards painted their boss Jesse Parino’s name on it one night; or Tilly, for a reason no one can remember. Many Salisbury Beach residents have fond memories of the sculpture that’s been ensconced in the salt marsh for more than 50 years at what was once the home of Nat’s Fun Spot at 191 Beach Road.

The move yesterday saved the distressed sculpture from the wrecking ball just before the site turns into a 210-unit apartment complex.

“I always wanted to do this,” said Steven Contarino, vice president of Haverhill’s Adamson Industries. “Once it’s dug up, we’ll take it back to Haverhill. And like Humpty Dumpty, we’ll put it back together again.”

Contarino didn’t take on the physical challenge of the rescue alone. Dana Simard of Salisbury’s Simard’s Construction and Frank Coady of Lawrence’s Coady Towing were all on hand. All brought men and equipment at no charge to accomplish the salvage job, which could have cost as much as $10,000 if volunteers hadn’t been so generous.

“I remember the whale since ’62, when I was about 14 working for Simmie’s (Towing),” Coady said. “We have a lot of other things to do today, and we’ll do them, but we’ll do this, too.”

Simard smiled and nodded, as a small excavator arrived about 7:30 yesterday morning to attack the job of moving the degraded hulk. The excavator, its driver and others worked with shovels in hand, digging into the marsh muck and braving the swarms of midges that plagued everyone at the site early on.

The plan was to carve away the ground under the whale’s anchorage, bring in Coady’s 75-ton rotator crane to raise it up on a sling and lay it down on a flatbed.

“We can do it; we’ve lifted trailer trucks before, just never a whale,” Contarino said.

And by noon, the fragile body of the whale, cracked and crumbled, along with its broken tail, was on one of Coady’s flatbeds. On a scale of one to 10, Contarino said, freeing that whale rated at “about a 12 and a half.”

The whale had a date with a state police escort for the trip to Contarino’s rehabilitation ward in Haverhill so repairs can begin within days.

The two women who launched the effort to save this icon of their youthful Salisbury Beach memories were on hand. Martha Hickey Dastous and Joanne Housianits waved off the bugs as they watched, hoping the rescue wouldn’t turn into a funeral for their beloved whale.

Initiated this winter, the undertaking was finalized only a few weeks ago, Dastous said, when Town Manager Neil Harrington agreed to have the whale sit on town land when restored. Its future home will be a piece of land by the beach skate park that Salisbury just reacquired from the state, she said. Having a spot to put the sentimental treasure made everything gel, she said.

When it arrives at its new home, perhaps as soon as next spring, Harrington said, the whale will be fenced in to protect it from vandalism, children from injury and the town from liability lawsuits.

Also watching the whale get a second lease on life was the daughter of the man who many believe built it in the first place. The late Charlie St. Cyr’s daughter, Mary-Beth, was there, camera in hand, to document the process for the family. Her late dad, a local mason and contractor, created the behemoth for Jim Natowich, owner of Nat’s Fun Spot, before Jack Goldman purchased and ran it as Kartland.

Although Chip Davis still insists his dad, Whitey, and local mason Howie MacDonald built the whale, MacDonald himself disagrees, as do many who credit the whale to St. Cyr’s handiwork.

“I dug the hole where we dropped the telephone pole that became the whale’s tail,” said former contractor Robert Dow, who believes the whale’s first incarnation was as Blinkie, due to its eyes. “Charlie St. Cyr built that whale for Jim Natowich. I think it was around 1957. I was about 19. I worked for Jim for about five years.”

St. Cyr’s wife, Ann, and eldest son, Chuck, agree.

Chuck St. Cyr remembers his dad talking about the whale every time the family drove by it. “My dad was very proud of that whale,” he said.

His mother, Ann, couldn’t help but chuckle over the dispute.

“Only in Salisbury can you start such a controversy over a whale that’s broken down,” she said, laughing.

Those for whom the sight of this beached whale brings back memories are pleased that a piece of the town’s history remains.

“If anybody can fix it, Steve (Contarino) can,” Coady said. “They want to build a steel frame around it first. I bet in a couple of days he’s going to call me to see if I know a welder who’ll help.”

“It’s a part of Salisbury history,” Contarino said. “When we’re done, parents can tell their kids about it, and it will live forever.”