A whale of a tale
by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., September 28, 2002) – Remember Willy, the whale of “Free Willy” fame? In a case of real-life imitating art (if movies like “Free Willy” can be called art), the story of what happened to Keiko -- the actor (if whales can be actors) who played Willy -- after he became famous is the very stuff of movies.

The New Yorker

As it turns out, it’s also the stuff of a terrific magazine piece, “Where’s Willy?”, by Susan Orlean in the September 23 issue of the New Yorker. And I’m speaking as one who took one look at an article about Willy the Whale – I mean Keiko – and thought to myself, “I don’t need to read this.”

But as I usually do, I gave it the first paragraph test – if an article about something that I’m not particularly interested in doesn’t grab me in the first paragraph, I don’t read it.

Fortunately, Orlean’s first paragraph grabbed me, as did her second, her third, and onward. In fact, her writing didn’t let go of my attention until the final period.

When I think back on it, it’s not even that interesting a story. I’ll summarize. Except for his brief brush with Hollywood, Willy – I mean Keiko – is an otherwise unremarkable killer whale. In fact, he’s kind of pathetic. He has a bad case of whale acne, and as whales go, he’s not very industrious, because he has spent most of his life cooped up in a third-rate tourist aquarium in Mexico lazily dining on frozen herring, salmon and cod (sounds a lot like my diet). No Moby Dick he.

(Yes, I know, Moby Dick wasn’t a killer whale -- he was a sperm whale. So put the pen down and don’t bother writing a letter to the editor complaining about my unfair comparison.)

What set Keiko apart from all other whales was his celebrity. What the filmmakers hadn’t bargained for was the outpouring of interest in Keiko in the wake of “Free Willy” (which for those of you who were on Jupiter in 1993, was about an amusement park whale that in the end goes free – which is why the filmmakers had to go to Mexico to find a whale actor, because the U.S.-based Sea World chain wanted nothing to do the film – or, as Orlean so hysterically puts it, they “shuddered at the message of whale emancipation”).

In the wake of the film, a grassroots campaign began to free Keiko (proving that the Sea World executives were as prescient as they were venal), which grew to encompass several non-profit foundations, millions of dollars in fund-raising, several intercontinental transports, and, much to Keiko’s relief, a near-miss rescue by Michael Jackson.

All of this is beside the point. Here’s Orlean on Iceland, Keiko’s birthplace and the land to which he was eventually repatriated: “It was a hell of a time to be in Iceland, although by most accounts it is always a hell of a time to be in Iceland, where the wind never huffs or puffs but simply blows your house down.”

On Keiko’s daily routine in the Mexico aquarium: “He spent much of his time swimming in nihilistic little circles….”

On the scene when Keiko left Mexico for greener pastures in Oregon: “The truck carrying him to the C-130 Hercules cargo plane moved at a solemn pace with a police escort as if it were the Popemobile….”

On Keiko’s disposition: “…the sort of killer whale who, if you were in the tank and he swam over to see what you were doing, would be careful not to accidentally crush you to death.”


What’s the single thing you can do to increase your chances of getting into
Harvard, Yale or Princeton?

Enroll in Roxbury Latin School in West Roxbury.

The general understanding is that the most selective colleges and universities have admissions officers who read through applications from students from all over the world and then choose matriculants based on criteria including previous academic performance, extra-curricular achievements, and an assessment of their potential ability to thrive at the particular institution.

But according to a statistical study conducted by Worth magazine, remnants of the old-boy network, in which elite prep schools acted as feeder institutions to Ivy League and other selective liberal-arts colleges, are alive and well.

In “Getting Inside the Ivy Gates” in the September issue, Reshma Memon Yaqub analyzes the results of the study, which showed that of the top 100 schools feeding Harvard, Yale and Princeton, 94 are private schools. In order to get a list of the 50 top public schools feeding freshmen to these universities, Yaqub had to go down nearly to 300 places on the master list of all schools.

But haven’t these elite institutions of higher learning made much hay of their attempts at diversifying their student bodies in recent years beyond the usual suspects from Exeter, Andover and Groton? Yaqub points out that colleges that boast that half their students come from public schools are knowingly overlooking the fact that “every year almost 10 times more kids graduate from public schools than from private schools.”

Of local interest, no Berkshire schools, public or private, appear on Worth’s list of the top feeder schools. The closest were Deerfield Academy and Amherst Regional High School.

[This column originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on September 28, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]

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