Florence Chamber announces Paul Linnman as 2020 Rhody Fest Grand Marshal

Iconic reporter returns to Florence, scene of The Exploding Whale

March 6, 2020 — The Florence Area Chamber of Commerce has announced that Paul Linnman, the former KATU-TV news reporter whose 1970 coverage of Florence’s exploded whale became an international phenomenon, will be grand marshal for the 113th annual Florence Rhododendron Festival parade on May 17.

The story is estimated to be the world’s most watched TV news story with hundreds of millions of online views and is credited as one of the internet’s first “viral videos.”

“We’re really excited that Paul has accepted our invitation,” said Bettina Hannigan, the Chamber’s executive director. “Our associate director, Mitzi Hathaway, tapped into her network of associates from her community work in Portland to make the connection.”

“I’m honored,” said Linnman. “I am thrilled with the ‘Blast From the Past’ theme and I love the event’s logo. When you work in the Portland media you get invitations to be part of a lot of events, but this one is really special. When we got Mitzi’s call my wife Vicki immediately said, ‘We’ve got to do that!’” 

“We like Florence a lot,” added Linnman. “Vicki and I, and our four boys, would often camp at Honeyman State Park. I still enjoy coming to play Florence Golf Links, seeing the dunes and beaches, and visiting Historic Old Town and the excellent restaurants there.”

In an interesting historical twist, Linnman almost lived in Florence in the 1960s and would have graduated from Siuslaw High School. His father was offered the job as city manager, but ultimately declined the invitation.

Even with all his visits to the area, this will be Linnman’s first Rhododendron Festival, but not his first foray into community festivals. He and his wife were deeply involved in the organizational side of Portland’s Rose Festival for many years.

Linnman, a Portland native, started at KATU-TV in Portland in 1968 while still a journalism student at Portland State University. As a new reporter he covered politics and one day found himself seated between Oregon governor Tom McCall and Nelson Rockefeller. He also covered presidential candidates from Robert Kennedy to George Wallace. At age 73, he is busier now than ever, working as a media consultant, helping corporations tell their stories to key constituents and the public through video. He occasionally fills in on KEX, Portland’s news-talk radio station, where he used to work full time until 2016.

But nothing tops his “whale of a story.”

Linnman is reminded of the infamous day on almost a daily basis and has come to embrace the notoriety. “There have been very few days ever in my life in which the story is not mentioned among the people I meet. It’s been with me every single day since, and it’s still fun,” he said.

At the time of his now world-famous story, Linnman didn’t think it would have a shelf life. “It was the day’s story, and we moved on. That’s the way it works in TV news.”

But the story almost didn’t air.

“My cameraman, Doug Brazil, and I flew down from Portland in a small plane, borrowed a car from the Florence airport manager, and headed out to the site near the South Jetty beach. When Doug and I got back to Portland, we realized that one of the two cannisters with our 60mm film — the footage you see in the famous clip with the audio of the crowd gasping and the blubber hitting the ground all around us — was missing,” Linnman recalled. “We made some calls and at 10 p.m. found that it was still in the airport manager’s car. As we prepared to drive back, overnight, to retrieve it (Linnman’s displeased editor wasn’t going to pay for another flight to Florence), the airport manager contacted us to say his son was moving to Portland and would deliver it to us in the morning. If we hadn’t had all of our video and audio footage, the story might have never aired.”

“This year’s theme is relevant and relatable to everyone,” added Hannigan. “Generations of families have enjoyed the annual Florence Rhododendron Festival by attending, enjoying the Davis Shows carnival, exhibiting their rhodies, showing off their classic cars and motorcycles, being in the parade, and shopping and dining in Old Town and all around town. It’s a family tradition, an Oregon institution. The event brings to mind many blasts from the past for thousands of people across the state.”

The Florence Rhododendron Festival is Oregon’s second-oldest floral festival, bested only by a year by the Portland Rose Festival, and sees thousands of visitors from around the state and across the country. It takes place annually on the third weekend of May and serves as the unofficial kickoff to the summer tourism season.

For more information on the 113th annual Florence Rhododendron Festival, including applications for vendor exhibit space, parade entries, or to volunteer on the Chamber’s Rhody Fest committee, contact event coordinator Mitzi Hathaway at [email protected] or 541-997-3128.