The Downtown Ducks

Reading this book will make your day. And if you give it as a gift, you’ll be doing the same for others, and then when your recipients call to tell you it made their day, you’ll get a made day all over again. It’s the applause kind of ripples-on-a-pond story (actually the Spokane River in Washington) that we can’t seem to get enough of. Thank you to the banker, who in real life rescued the paddling of ducklings, catching them one by one midair, and the onlookers who cheered him on. Thank you to the author, an attorney, who decided to rally his mother, age 79, and his daughter, age 12, to help him illustrate it. And if you’re a boomer like me, who raised a brood of children reading them the classic 1941 Make Way for Ducklings book about a pair of mallards who raised their brood in the Boston Public Garden and a police officer who stops traffic for them, you’ll probably still remember reading this out loud hundreds of times: Jack, Kack, Lack, Mack, Nack, Quark, Quack, and Pack. And you might even remember that the bronze statue of the ducks that was erected in the Boston Public Garden took on global ramifications when Barbara Bush gave a duplicate statue to Raisa Gorbechev as part of the START treaty. Now we’re talking world diplomacy, which is exactly where The Downtown Ducks is headed, because the event has already made front-page news in the UK and none other than the Whitehouse called to congratulate all involved for such a positive story. During the past few weeks, I’ve taken my morning tea in the company of a Mallard couple, this year’s residents on my pond. For me, they represent all that’s right in the world and rightly so. The Downtown Ducks does likewise; it encourages us to continue paddling against current strife and angst, underwater, just beneath the surface, as fast as we can. 

By Roberta Simonson

In May 2008, Spokane banker Joel Armstrong had been keeping tabs on a mother duck and her 10 eggs, nested on the concrete awning outside his second-floor downtown office window, for weeks.

One morning, Armstrong watched as the mother mallard flew down to the sidewalk and started quacking up at her day-old ducklings, at least 10 feet above. The first fuzzy bird waddled to the ledge’s edge and leapt.

Normally, Armstrong said, he doesn’t interfere with nature.

“But then I saw one hit (the concrete) and bounce … my heart just opened and I had to go out and help.”

Armstrong ran outside, stood under the awning and caught the ducklings one by one before setting them on the sidewalk with their mother. Then he escorted the entire duck family – the first duckling was stunned but lived – to the Spokane River.

Nearly 16 years later, in 2024, another Spokane man, attorney Richard Repp, has preserved Armstrong’s 2008 heroics in a children’s book, “The Downtown Ducks.”

“I just always thought it was such a cute story, I just thought, well, that’s a perfect children’s story,” Repp said. “The building where it happened, the Cutter Tower, my office was in the US Bank building right next door … everyone was talking about it at the time.”

Indeed, after an email chronicling the event went viral, Armstrong’s actions, which he repeated when the mallard nested there for a few more years, received national and even foreign attention.

“A lot of people just were enthralled by the story,” Armstrong said. “It was during a tough time in the banking industry, and it was some really good, positive news just to make people happy.”

Repp referenced 2008 and 2009 Spokesman-Review stories about Spokane’s “duck guy” when creating “The Downtown Ducks.” In 2009, the ducklings hatched on the same day as the Lilac Parade.

“2009 was the year that the parade was involved; 2008 was the year that it first happened. I took some artistic license and I tried to just combine the two years into one story,” he said.

Though Repp wrote the book alone, he illustrated it with the help of his mother Mary, 79, and daughter Anya, 12.

“I wanted my mom to be involved as a sort of a legacy for my mom because my mom was an artist that really contributed to my interest in art and books,” he said.

Growing up, Repp wanted to be a cartoon artist.

As for his daughter, “she already enjoyed doing art and so this was kind of fun for us, to be sitting at the kitchen table together, doing it together,” Repp said. “She was one of the ones that kept sort of egging me on, like, ‘When are you gonna finish your book, Dad? When are you gonna finish your book? I want to see it.’ ”

Repp wrote and illustrated the book over several months starting in winter 2022. When he made some copies via Shutterfly and distributed them to friends and family in 2023, “they loved it.”

“A lot of people were surprised to have learned that I could even draw because I haven’t really used my drawing in years,” he said. “Initially this was just a gift for family, but it was so well received, and people embraced it and I was like, ‘OK, well, if people enjoy it, let’s share.’ ”

Repp reached out to Armstrong in the fall and told him about the book. Armstrong bought copies for himself and his family.

“I thought it was a great job just telling the story, but I loved his artwork because he did it himself,” Armstrong said. “He’s a great artist.”

In writing “The Downtown Ducks,” Repp hopes to ensure the survival of Spokane’s duck story.

“Over time people forget about news stories, but there are certain children’s books that last forever,” he said. “I read ‘Curious George’ to my children and Dr. Seuss to my children. It was the same books that I read when I was a child.

“For me, creating a children’s story was a way to preserve the story and to pass it on to my children. It’s just such a fun, heartwarming, happy, feel-good story. I think it’s important to preserve it.”

“The Downtown Ducks” can be purchased online at Barnes and Noble, Amazon, Walmart or ThriftBooks.

Roberta Simonson’s reporting is part of the Teen Journalism Institute, funded by Bank of America with support from the Innovia Foundation.

  1. Krista Butters Davis says:

    This children’s book sounds adorable. I love how it’s based on a true story and about the small and joyous things just outside our window. It really made my heart melt. My kids and I will have to read this book!

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