Typically, when someone is said to have “inhaled” a piece of cake, it’s not meant to be taken literally.
But the 40th birthday party Saturday afternoon for Riverfront Park’s garbage-eating goat was not typical in any sense.
For one thing, the celebration honored two enduring local legends: the steel billy goat with a vacuum for a mouth and his 93-year-old creator, Sister Paula Turnbull.
Then there was the fact that an untold number of the maybe 75 partygoers were not altogether sure what was going on at first. They had simply been in the park and come upon an outdoor gathering that event organizer Tom Keefe called “Forty Years of Goat.”
But it did not take anyone long to discern that this was a happy salute.
The goat, which reportedly has consumed almost 15,000 cubic yards of trash and toddlers’ mittens since taking his position during Expo ’74, was festooned with balloons, a purple party hat and a lei.
Sister Paula was the one with white hair and the big smile.
She said she was amazed that strangers wanted her to autograph goat picture-cards that had been handed out. Keefe had to remind the still-working artist of the affection Spokane has for her whimsical-yet-somehow-perfect creation. “You are a rock star,” said the local lawyer and head of the loose-knit Friends of the Goat.
Saying the goat has played an important role in the lives of multiple generations of Spokane children, Keefe introduced former city of Spokane arts director Karen Mobley as master of ceremonies.
“I want to be Sister Paula when I grow up,” said a smiling Mobley, standing in front of the goat in his basalt grotto not far from Spokane Falls Boulevard.
Soon everyone was singing the “Happy Birthday!” song – “Happy birthday, dear goooat” – and there was no mistaking that the party was on.
When it came time for the birthday cake, Keefe presented the first slice to Sister Paula.
After lighting two candles, “4” and “0,” he held the cake up to the goat’s mouth. Mobley hit the button that triggers the suction and, WHOOSH, the garbage goat sucked away the flames.
Applause and cheers erupted.
Then Keefe and the happy nun fed a piece to Spokane’s oddest icon. The metal celebrity made quick work of it, which prompted some onlookers to howl.
(It appeared to be white cake.)
Looking somewhat amazed by the celebration, Sister Paula was asked what she thought about the festivities.
“I think it’s great,” she said. “After all this time.”
Nancy Jones, attending the party with her daughter and grandchild, approached Sister Paula.
“Thank you for your gift to the city,” Jones said. “It has meant so much to so many people.”
On one side of the nun was a weathered plaque. “Paula Turnbull/sculptor … Given to the people of Spokane by the Women’s Council of Realtors … 1974.”
On the other side of her was what may be the world’s most interactive piece of art, still standing his ground after 40 years.
A little boy asked Sister Paula if it was OK to feed some paper to the goat now. Yes, she said. It sure was.
Then the party relocated across the street to O’Doherty’s Irish Grille & Pub.
The goat didn’t go, of course. There might have been a little kid holding a candy wrapper headed his way at that very moment. And he’s never been one to abandon his post.