Jul 18 2010

A Wonderful Story

Category: friendship,God,Intelligent Designamuzikman @ 8:55 am

This is a truly remarkable story.  It has found its way into print in Guideposts magazine, in a lovely little book called “When God Winks” by SQuire Rushnell, and now on this gentleman’s blog.  It’s also a very personal story to me.

The Day Weary Willie Smiled

By Phil Bolsta

emmett-kellyEmmett Kelly as Weary Willie

I loved Emmett Kelly as a kid. He was Weary Willie, the quintessential tramp clown, an integral part of my childhood. This touching and amazing story by his daughter, Stasia Kelly, of Atlanta, Georgia, appeared in the October 2006 issue of Guideposts. What are the odds of this story ending as it did?  Probably one in a trillion. And yet . . .

I sat on the plane, my purse in my lap, waiting to take off from Hartsfield International Airport in Atlanta for Florida to attend my father’s funeral. I had just spoken to Dad the day before. He’d sounded a little down, but I never guessed it would be the last time I heard his voice. “I’m tired, Stasia,” he said. I could hear that tiredness through the phone, could feel it the way so many people had felt the world-weariness in the most beloved character my father ever portrayed.

emmett-kelly-smilingEmmett Kelly learns he’s a dad

I shifted in my seat—first-class because it was the only available spot on this leg of my trip home. The airline-reservations operator had promised to get me there in time for Dad’s funeral, so she honored my bereavement ticket and gave me an upgrade. I pulled the faded newspaper photo from my purse and glanced at it. The famous picture of my dad, Emmett Kelly. Or should I say of Weary Willie, the sad clown that he had immortalized. Dad was disciplined about Willie’s public persona. Once Dad put his makeup on, Weary Willie never broke character and never smiled, except once, back in 1955. That one time he smiled—beamed, really—a young photographer snapped his photo, and around the globe it went. The only time Willie smiled in public, the world smiled with him.

The plane was almost full and the seat next to me was still vacant. Good, I’d have the row to myself and my tears. I didn’t feel like explaining to some high-powered business type why I was so sad. I folded the picture and slipped it back inside my purse just as a well-dressed, middle-aged man strode down the aisle and took his seat next to me.

“Almost missed this flight,” he said with a sigh, as we taxied from the gate.

Odd as it might sound, in the clowning business Dad was a revolutionary. Clowns were happy figures …zany, wacky, unpredictable and relentlessly upbeat. But that’s not the kind of clown Dad was. He’d created Willie on his drawing board—a rumpled, sad-sack figure, beaten down by the world, Everyman on a lifelong losing streak. In those days, circus bosses were skeptical. Did people want a depressed clown? But they let him try it.

By the 1940s, the sad clown had become a hit and Dad had made it to the big time—Ringling Bros. circus. People cared about Willie and his struggles. They saw that no matter how hard he took it on the chin, Willie never gave up. He became the world’s most famous clown, probably the most recognizable clown ever. Maybe the reason Willie was so easy for people to love was that Dad brought a bit of himself to the character. Not that Dad was a sad sack, but he understood struggle. His early life on the road was tough and often lonely. Then in middle age he fell head over heels in love with a beautiful trapeze artist who eventually became his wife and my mom. They bought a little place in sunny Sarasota, Florida, for when the circus wasn’t traveling. It had a big backyard, a porch and a vegetable garden. For the first time, Weary Willie was a happy man—and happiest of all, I’m told, that day I was born. He and Mom named me Stasia.

Now, staring out the plane window, I tried to be grateful for that happiness Dad had found, and for the life he had led making others happy. How much more blessed could a daughter be than to have Emmett Kelly as her father? Even the airline-reservations operator who managed to get me this last-minute seat said some thing. “I remember Willie! Your dad made so many people smile.” Yet yearning and grief crushed out all my other feelings. I rested my head against the seat. Dear Lord, comfort me. Show me a sign Dad is content with you the way he was with Mom and our home and the backyard where he watched us kids play.

They say the food in first class is better. I wouldn’t know. I didn’t feel much like eating. I kept my tray up and stared into my lap. I just wanted to get home to Florida. I felt the plane slow and then one wing dipped as we started to descend. I couldn’t resist pulling that old newspaper clipping out of my purse and looking again at Dad beaming that incredible smile as he held a phone and heard the news that I’d been born. Immediately, I had to wipe away a tear.

I barely heard the man next to me say, “Excuse me.” He tapped my arm gently.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “Yes?”

“”That photo…”

“My dad, Emmett Kelly. He died today. But this is from the day I was born….”

“I know, Stasia. I know. I was there. I’ve never seen a man so happy. I just had to snap that picture.”

My father, Frank Beatty, was the photographer who took that now-famous picture – the only one ever taken of Weary Willie smiling.  And what an amazing moment for him to meet Kelly’s daughter that day on the plane.  My dad went on to become very good friends with Stasia Kelly, he was even the photographer at her wedding.  God does indeed often work in mysterious ways.