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If elephant dies, what do you do?


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Norma Jean on the day before she died in 1972.

OQUAWKA -- In life, Norma Jean was a star. In death, she may be more famous, and this small Henderson County town is her stage.

On July 17, 1972, the 6,500-pound elephant, in town as one of the star attractions of the Clark and Walters Circus, died in a blaze of glory after she was hit by lightning while chained to a tree in the town square.

Rather than try to move the enormous remains of the 30-year-old pachyderm, a 12-foot deep hole was dug next to the tree and Norma Jean was rolled into an unmarked grave.

Over the years, the town square was moved and many people forgot about Norma Jean.

One man, though, didn't -- retired druggist Wade Meloan, who spearheaded a five-year fundraising drive to build a memorial for Norma Jean.

``I would drive by the grave on my way home and I noticed that nothing had been done,'' Mr. Meloan said during a 1995 interview with The Dispatch and The Rock Island Argus.

He planted grass at her burial site, built a picket fence around the grave and put up a plywood marker. As the months went by, Mr. Meloan tried to brighten the spot, bringing a plant from home and picking up wreaths from a local supermarket to lay on the grave on Memorial Day.

With Norma Jean all alone -- the owners of the circus closed it in 1973 when they were unable to afford another elephant -- Mr. Meloan decided something needed to be done so Oquawka would always remember its visiting star.

As word of his quest to build a permanent memorial for Norma Jean spread, contributions began trickling in from across the country.

With $500 in hand, he turned to a friend, retired stone mason Melvin Robbins, who designed a nearly 2 ton, rough-hewn limestone monument for the elephant.

The curving, 8-by-12-foot wall is topped with a concrete statute of an elephant and contains a glass display case with newspaper clippings and photos of Norma Jean in her heyday and after her death.

The monument was dedicated on Memorial Day weekend in 1977. An elephant from another circus visiting Oquawka that weekend was enlisted to lay a wreath on the grave.

Over the years, Norma Jean's fame grew. Postcards of the monument were made, a directional sign was erected on the town's main street and it became the subject of a documentary film.

The gravesite still attracts visitors and donations, including $150 from a retired San Francisco physician in 1992 to replace the damaged elephant statue, Mr. Meloan said.

He said his drive to memorialize Norma Jean was driven by compassion. ``If you don't go through life helping people, even if it's only an old dead elephant, then there's no use being here.''

-- By Rebecca Morris (February 9, 1998)

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