Clowning to Raise Money in Iowa

"It's an alternative form of fundraising," Lehman says. Clowning is a way to bring in crowds, and it's also an opportunity to get safety messages across - especially to little kids.

In 1985, the Panther Creek Church of the Brethren invited members of other Dallas County churches to attend a weekend course taught by a student of the well-known Floyd Schaffer, a great in clown ministry. That was all Lehman needed to realize this was something she could do.

Soon, she was joining magic club Justo Hijo, and Clown Alley No. 189, the Korn Patch Klowns. She attended as many clown camps and conferences as she could. And she was fascinated.

"Clowning is like music and art," Lehman says. "It transcends the spoken language."

She discovered she could captivate crowds without saying a word.

She created her clown persona with the name "Mari-Gold," the nickname her dad gave her. She also created the name "Tip-Top" for her son Travis, then 3 years old, who started out performing kiddie magic beside his mom.

Through the years, Mari-Gold and Tip-Top performed together in grease and rags, often using real goldfish, chicks, guinea pigs and rabbits to liven up their shows.

Travis is now attending Northwest Missouri State, no longer clowning, but he's a public-speaking whiz after all those years of working the crowds.

A common bond

Lehman joined the Adel Fire Department in 1999.

It wasn't long before she figured out that she could combine firefighting with clowning, just like fire clowns in other areas.

Her fire clown name, JetSiphonM, refers to a piece of rural fire equipment; she reworked some old bunker pants and had a fire helmet painted with flames.

She lives with a young border collie, Sazul, who she's teaching to Stop, Drop and Roll. When he's ready for his public, she plans to attach flames to his collar with Velcro. "It'll be kickin,'" she promises.

In 2003, Lehman became the first person to teach clowning for firefighters in the state of Iowa. She teaches through the Iowa Department of Public Safety's Fire Service Training Bureau.

This September, she'll also begin to teach clowning at the fire school at Kirkwood Community College.

In her classes, Lehman teaches firefighters how to develop skits, create their clown personalities, and play with all the fun costumes she lets them experiment with. At the state fire marshal's winter school last month, "I got the students crazy. They really got worked up."

Which, in the clown world, is a good thing.

The way Lehman sees it, all the first responders to emergencies - firefighters, cops, EMTs - are people who could use some clowning in their lives.

When people call for emergency help, it's because their homes are on fire, their arms are tangled in combines. Or it's something worse than that maybe.

"When they call us, it's because it's the worst day in their life," Lehman says. "We're there, and we see the worst."

It's even harder for the 76 percent of firefighters across the country who are volunteers, people who interrupt their jobs and their private lives to answer calls. "Who gets up at 3 o'clock in the morning to go kneel in a ditch with a drunk who just killed an 18-year-old kid?"

Lehman sees fire clowning as a way to relieve stress while helping people bond.

"There's a lot to say for humor," she says. Lately she's been reading the theories of clowning physician Dr. Hunter "Patch" Adams, learning about the physiological benefits of laughter.

Clowning is "positive energy," Lehman says. "It's a blast. Everybody's very positive on it. The people that you meet are the best."

That, and they just like it.

As Patch Adams once said, "Everyone who goes to a job he doesn't like is a lot weirder than I am."

Between working at Access Systems in Adel and fighting fires, Lehman would already be busy.

With clowning and teaching, too, her life is just nuts. She just doesn't have time off.

"Yeah, but that's what I do," she says. "I love it."