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Columbia man still a clown at heart


Though he's wiped off the greasepaint and hung up the baggy pants, John Paul Ward can't seem to stop clowning around at the Florence Bain Senior Center in Columbia.

Reach for a handshake and you're likely to get a lollipop instead, as the 82-year-old Columbia resident and former amateur clown makes his daily rounds, dispensing cheer and sweets.

"I carry them in my pocket everywhere I go," says Mr. Ward, who goes through a box of 100 lollipops every two weeks at Florence Bain. "I've always enjoyed clowning, and people get a kick out of it."

The visits -- and the lollipops -- have been his trademark since 1985, when he moved to Columbia from Prince George's County after the death of his wife, Greta.

"It's another way to get rid of an inferiority complex by doing things for other people, rather than thinking about myself," says Mr. Ward. "As a youngster, I was as homely as a mud fence, and I had to come out of my self-consciousness."

A bookkeeper by profession, Mr. Ward has been involved in amateur theatrics since high school, becoming president of his high school drama club "because I had to put myself out front to show that I was somebody."

He continued that activity while in college, becoming president of the drama and glee clubs at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., which he attended for two years.

He first donned a clown suit in the early 1970s as an active member of Council No. 2809 of the Knights of Columbus in Prince George's County, where he lived with his wife and their three daughters, Joan, Jean and Janet.

Joining the "Knights of the Klown Table" -- a now-defunct division of the Prince George's County Knights of Columbus, whose members gave benefit performances -- Mr. Ward became took on the character of "Smokey."

Wearing baggy pants, a red plaid shirt, suspenders and a fire hat given to him by his son-in-law, who was then a firefighter, Mr. Ward transformed himself into a firefighter-clown.

"I had a red bucket full of confetti, and when somebody would holler 'Fire!' I would empty the bucket over the heads of the spectators," recalls Mr. Ward.

Such performances often took place during holiday parades in Prince George's and Montgomery counties and in Baltimore City.

But Mr. Ward found that the character of "Smokey" wasn't appropriate for all audiences. When the Knights of the Klown Table began performing regularly for a group of mentally disabled children, for example, Mr. Ward decided to come up with a new character.

"I knew that sometimes children were afraid of 'Smokey,' and I didn't know what to do," he says. "One evening, I was sitting in my rec room listening to music when 'The Waltz of the Flowers' came on, and I began to dance."

That's when Mr. Ward hit on his next guise: that of a ballerina. With the help of his wife, Mr. Ward designed a costume of long underwear, a net tutu and matching top.

Mr. Ward's performances were a big hit, says Joseph Fernandez, 62, who was Grand Knight of Council No. 2809 in 1972.

"The children loved John Paul," he says. "They always waited for him whenever the group was scheduled to appear. He was a standout and had a real knack for kids, giving them bubble gum and lollipops."

In addition, Mr. Ward acted as a leader of the clown group, organizing numerous community service visits.

"John Paul continued in the clown group for about 12 to 15 years and was one of the last stalwart fellows," Mr. Fernandez says.

Today, Mr. Ward has a corrugated box filled with clown-related items and gifts he has been given, which he displayed recently at the Florence Bain Senior Center.

Carefully unwrapping each tissue-covered item, he shared his collection of 15 clown figures, several clown dolls, numerous photos, cards and two plaques presented by the Knights of Columbus.

In 1984 he was recognized as an honorary life member of the Knights of the Klown Table for his participation in community service; he was awarded "Clown of the Year" in 1985.

But Mr. Ward also has a serious side.

"John Paul is very thoughtful," says Dorothy Keczmerski, a social worker who coordinates several support groups at the senior center. "He makes phone calls and sends cards to those who are sick; he is a word-spreader, giving news of people who are sick or have other problems in a way that isn't gloomy."

Mr. Ward has had his own share of woes.

Recently he was robbed of his wallet while unlocking the door to his apartment near Florence Bain and, as a result, will be moving.

Even so, he retains a positive outlook, grateful for the support of his daughters and proud of his eight grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

"My wife died in 1985 . . . I'm deaf in my left ear and blind in one eye but God left me with a good sense of humor," Mr. Ward says. Besides, he adds, "The whole world loves a clown."

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