Lessons from the Circus - Part IV: Volunteers are Important

Jan. 27, 2010
There is a place in Sarasota where you can go to see an old-time circus. However, it is a circus with a difference. It is called the Sailor Circus and is located on the grounds of the old Sarasota High School.

It is that time of the year again: I get to run away and join the circus. My running buddies and I from the Windjammers Unlimited, Inc. circus music preservation association gather in Sarasota, FL, every January to relive the glory of circus music from the golden age of circuses in America. So it was this past week. It was great.

As best I can gather from my Windjammer associates, these golden years ran from the 1860's until the early 1960's. This would seem right, as I can recall that there was a traveling circus which visited my hometown, Freehold, NJ, on a fairly regular basis during my youth in the 1950's. Mom and dad would take my brother and I to the circus which would generally be set up across the street from the Freehold Raceway on State Highway 33 in their parking lot.

There were elephants, lions, tigers, trapeze acts, and some really great circus band music. Then the circus stopped coming to town one year. I guess it was because of the really neat fight which broke out after the show one night between a number of the local toughs and the circus's gang of roustabouts. I do not remember much, as my dad hustled us out of there before the blood began to flow.

Circuses are quite a bit different today. I guess the best way to describe the difference to you is to state that the last modern circus I attended seemed more like a Broadway show with elephants than a real circus. The music was a combination of recorded music and synthesizer music. It really was not what a circus tuba player like me would consider to be a real circus.

Like many aspects of our society, there have been great changes in what constitutes a circus. They are, after all, businesses, and how long would they remain in business if they did not consider the preferences of today's audiences? I guess it would be somewhat akin to a modern fire department operating horse-drawn steamer apparatus. We no longer use them, however you and I can still find places to go where we can see older apparatus and equipment, and perhaps dream a bit.

So it is too with the world of circuses. There is a place in Sarasota where you can go to see an old-time circus. However, it is a circus with a difference. It is called the Sailor Circus and is located on the grounds of the old Sarasota High School. In an earlier era, it was a vocational school program which served as a training ground and feeder service for the Ringling Brothers, Barnum, and Bailey Circus system, as well as a number of smaller shows.

Over time, the need for the program began to diminish. After a number of liability issues arose, the school system shut down the program. However, there was a strong support network for the Sailor Circus. These supporters approached the local Police Athletic League (PAL) chapter and asked for their help. After a period of time, it was decided that the circus was worth saving and a series of fund-raising efforts were mounted to keep it going. The efforts have been successful and the circus just celebrated its 61st anniversary.

On Sunday. Jan. 24, 2010, our Windjammer's Center Ring Band and our Circus Band played at a special Sunday afternoon performance. We were also privileged to play opposite the all-volunteer Sailor Circus Band. This fine musical group is a combination of musicians from the Sarasota High School Band and volunteer adult musicians from the community. They were truly outstanding.

During the initial welcome to the show, the Ring Master made it abundantly clear just what sort of an organization the Sailor Circus is. She stressed that it is an all-volunteer organization dedicated to the young adults of the Greater Sarasota area. She noted that the circus performers ranged in age from fourth grade through high school. It was also emphasized that all proceeds from the operation of the circus were plowed back into the PAL organizational fund and that none of it went to salaries.

It did not take long for my creative juices to kick in. It was obvious to me that the PAL Sailor Circus has a great deal in common with all of us in the volunteer fire service. The young people doing the performing are backed up by network of volunteers who perform a wide range of support functions. Like our fire departments, nothing happens unless a volunteer steps forward to make it happen.

From the lady who sold me the t-shirts for my daughters, to the gentleman who sold me my ice cone, to the lady who sold me my hot dog, to the gentlemen who were serving as the safety spotters for the young ladies who were riding the bicycles in the high wire act, all were volunteers. Like you and I, they have made a pledge to something in which they believe.

Their commitment of time comes out of whatever moments they have left over after working to make a living and taking time to be with their families. There are also cross-generational ties. There are families who come together and enjoy being a part of the circus. I spoke with a Dad who plays saxophone in the band, along with his wife and daughter who are flute players. There are also adult coaches who learned their skills as student members of the circus in years past. They are now passing on what they have learned over the years to a new generation, just like my daughter Katie and I in the Adelphia Fire Company.

These fine folks also have the same organizational problems as we do in the volunteer fire service. There is a constant need for fund-raising efforts in order to maintain the facility and buy new equipment. There is also a capital funding-raising effort to conduct some major repairs and renovations at their performance venue. The PAL has managed to raise a shade more than $1 million over the past few years; however the need remains for an additional $1 million to fully complete the rebuilding effort. While the task at hand seems daunting, it is difficult to believe that these fine folks will not succeed.

Are these folks any different than you and me? I do not think so. In my days as a volunteer fireman I have served pancakes, spun game wheels at our carnival, helped my wife at the spaghetti dinner, counted money, served as an announcer, and helped to stuff and address fund-raising envelopes. You and I do what we must in order to be sure that our department stands ready to assist the citizens of our fire district.

Let me assure you that it is getting harder and harder to find dedicated people willing to join our lifesaving efforts. I am also fairly certain that the folks at the Sailor Circus are having troubles raising money and finding active volunteers. But guess what my friends, in both of our cases, the show must go on. I can only hope that we are never forced to miss a performance for the want of people, tools, or talent. For you see, if our show does not go on, people might perish.

Like the people at the Sailor Circus in Sarasota, you and I must continue to find and recruit dedicated volunteers. Like the circus folks, we need to train safely and diligently, so that when we are called upon to perform, our show will go on and everyone will get to go home. Yes my friend, there are lots of lessons which we can learn in this life, if we just choose to pay attention. It just happens that my lessons this week were learned at the circus.

HARRY R. CARTER, Ph.D., CFO, MIFireE, a Firehouse.com Contributing Editor, is a municipal fire protection consultant based in Adelphia, NJ. Dr. Carter retired from the Newark, NJ, Fire Department and is a past chief and active life member of the Adelphia Fire Company. He recently published Leadership: A View from the Trenches and Living My Dream: Dr. Harry Carter's 2006 FIRE Act Road Trip. You can reach Harry by e-mail at [email protected].

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