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News / Business / Clark County Business

On trail of legendary weather dog and mascot of The Columbian, Columbo

By Will Campbell, Columbian Associate Editor
Published: December 26, 2023, 6:08am
7 Photos
Columbo, The Columbian's weather dog and mascot, gets the scoop from reporter Scott Hewitt while visiting the newsroom Dec. 14.
Columbo, The Columbian's weather dog and mascot, gets the scoop from reporter Scott Hewitt while visiting the newsroom Dec. 14. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

I found him hiding in a locked storage room at The Columbian. He looked sad and tired, but it didn’t take long for him to realize that I wanted to help him —and hear from him.

I’m talking about Columbo, our newspaper’s mascot. Our giant, inflatable, brown-felt dog was born in 1990. He perked right up.

I sat down with him for an exclusive interview, although I had to interpret his answers from his paw gestures and head nods. I figured yes-and-no questions would work best, although as journalists, we’re taught it’s better to ask open-ended questions.

“Who created you?” I asked Columbo. He shrugged and looked at me with bulging eyes.

“Is it true you were one of the first inflatable mascots in the country?” A smaller shrug, and he looked confused.

“I know you were popular in the ’90s, but when did you last appear in public? Was it in the past five years?” He shook his head as if to reply, “No.”

“When were you last in public?” Another shrug from Columbo. That question was a stretch.

Columbo wouldn’t give me much. I wanted to talk to Columbo because it was a special day here at The Columbian: potluck day. Everyone brings in a dish and employees drift through our departments to fill up on an eclectic meal of roughly 100 different dishes with no theme.

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I told Columbo to go enjoy. He hummed with delight, waddled out the door, head bobbling side to side, to greet Columbian employees for the first time in years.

Tracing Columbo’s past

I still had unanswered questions, but luckily, one of Columbo’s old caretakers, Tony Myers, came to visit us on potluck day. Myers was delighted to see Columbo strutting around The Columbian again, posing for pictures with employees and silently interacting with them. Myers spent plenty of his time in the 1990s with Columbo as the dog waved to kids at River Runs, huge annual family-friendly running events along the Columbia River. The runs lasted from 1978 to 1996.

“Kids would come up and hug, sometimes too tight,” Myers said. They figured out if they squeezed him enough, it would deflate. Kinda collapse.”

But Myers didn’t know how Columbo was created. I had to dig deeper.

I accessed The Columbian’s online archives and tried to find traces of Columbo in our print editions. The results were mostly articles about the 1970s detective TV show “Columbo.” I finally caught his scent on a page from 1980.

Famous Columbian cartoonist Jim Shinn drew the first weather dog around that time, and the cartoon appeared in print to give readers the day’s weather. There wasn’t any announcement about the dog. It just appeared. But it didn’t have a name.

The dog remained nameless for 10 years until March 1990, when The Columbian held a contest that asked readers to vote on a name for our weather dog.

Readers frequently saw Columbo forecast the day: “Hot dog! High could hit 100, Columbo says,” or “Expect some morning drizzle, Columbo says.” The Columbian’s weather columnist, Patrick Timm, began writing his column that year from the interest sparked by Columbo.

I kept searching our archives for more clues, and I found that Columbo evolved in 1990.

Columbo steps out

In the April 15, 1990, edition, the first picture appears of the giant inflatable Columbo. The dog is holding a boy’s hand as they cross a street surrounded by a crowd of kids. This is the Columbo that thousands knew from appearances at River Runs, the Clark County Fair and parades.

In 1994, reader Gloria Louise Nelson detailed her experience at one of these River Runs: “My happy button hilariously got stuck on automatic. … I even did a little jog with Columbo.”

Yet I couldn’t find anything in The Columbian’s pages about how Columbo came to be. I asked some of our longest-tenured employees at The Columbian how our giant Columbo was created. No one remembered. A few people suggested that one man, long gone from The Columbian, might know. He was the Columbian’s promotion manager in the ’90s: Gary Dixon.

I found someone on Facebook named Gary Dixon in Vancouver, and I messaged him. Days passed without a reply. I asked coworkers if they had his contact info. Nobody did. Finally, I walked to our human resources department and asked if we had any old records. We found an index card with Gary Dixon’s phone number from decades ago.

I called the number on the card, unsure if this number from the ’90s would still work.

A voice replied: “Hello?”

It was Gary Dixon. He told me it was his idea to commission Columbo. In 1990, he gave Jim Shinn’s Columbo cartoon to a mascot-creation company. The company came up with a costume to look like the cartoon.

“I thought it would be a great public relations idea,” Dixon said. “He was the personification of The Columbian in the community interacting with people.”

A rep sold him on the idea of making an inflatable costume, a type that was just starting to come onto the market at the time. According to The University of Nebraska, the school’s “Lil’ Red” mascot from 1993 — three years after Columbo — was the “first inflatable mascot to be used in either college or professional sports.” I couldn’t any more information on the history of inflatable costumes.

As Dixon recalled Columbo’s creation, I noticed he was talking about the mascot as if he was long gone.

“You know, Columbo made an appearance here last week,” I said.

“He did?!” Dixon said, shocked.

Long live Columbo

People are still wondering: Who was in the Columbo costume?

All mascots, including Columbo, follow these rules: Don’t speak. Don’t make noises. Stay in character and don’t change in public.

It’s all meant to uphold the magic of the illusion. If you break a rule, the mascot dies. And Columbo isn’t going to die.

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