Queens of the rodeo

Annie Blanks | 315-4450 | @DestinLogAnnie | ablanks@thedestinlog.com
Helen Donaldson, left, and Marion Palmgren laugh on the barge in front of the leaderboard at the Destin Fishing Rodeo on Monday afternoon. ANNIE BLANKS/The Destin Log

Helen Donaldson and Marion Palmgren sat in their office on the first floor of AJ’s Monday afternoon and kept their eyes on the close-circuit television that broadcasts the weigh-in barge just for them.

They organized stacks of papers that detailed the 241 fish that were weighed over the weekend, and solved a mini-crisis when someone came in saying that there weren’t enough fishing poles for the children.

For Donaldson and Palmgren, this ain’t their first rodeo.

The executive and associate directors, respectively, of the Destin Fishing Rodeo have served a combined 50 years with the organization. Donaldson started as executive director in 1998, the 50th annual rodeo, and Palmgren started “sometime in the '80s.”

“It was about 30 or 31 years ago,” she said. “My husband and I moved here (from Atlanta) in 1982. There was no grocery store, no stoplight … we met people, and they asked me to help judge the rodeo one year.”

When Palmgren started, all data was tracked by hand, judges signed off on fish weights and the rodeo was still held off of a dock by what is now Marler Bridge.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Palmgren has moved back to Atlanta, but still comes down to Destin every September to stay the month of October and help out with the festivities.

“That’s how much I love it,” she said.

Donaldson first became involved with the rodeo in the 1990s when she was working for the chamber of commerce. She volunteered before becoming executive director in 1998. She now works year-round, including working every single day in October out of the rodeo office on the first floor of AJ’s.

“I love my job. I love the people that I work with,” Donaldson said. “I love the 31 days that Marion and I get to work together nonstop.”

Between the two of them, the queens of the Destin Fishing Rodeo have seen their fair share of fish stories. One that sticks out to Donaldson involves storied rodeo weighmaster Bruce Cheves.

“The first time Bruce shot fish guts out of a cannon, that was memorable,” Donaldson said. “He shot fish guts on the wall and called it ‘fish art.' ”

Donaldson also recalled the various offices she and Palmgren have worked out of over the years. Before their cushy office at AJ’s, the staff worked out of a trolley.

“It was awful, but we made it work,” Donaldson said. She added one year they were put up in a houseboat, and could go fishing “when things got slow”.

However, things rarely get slow during the month of October, and that’s just quite alright by Donaldson and Palmgren. They have grown inseparable over their years serving with the rodeo, and lean on each other to make it through each crazy day during October.

“She is the most wonderful person to work with and work for,” Palmgren said of Donaldson. “She’s easy to be with 31 days in a row, and you can’t say that about many people.”

“I love Marion. I don’t know that I could do this without her,” Donaldson said of Palmgren. “I consider her my second mother, and her children my brothers. We know everything about each other’s lives.”