Either by random chance or cosmic design, Tim Torkildson had his first opportunity to be a clown in kindergarten, and after that he was never the same.
He swiped his brother Bill’s pajamas and smeared his mother’s lipstick on his face, looking more like the victim of a head-on crash than a merrymaker.
Not having any scripted action besides the teacher’s admonition to “do something funny," Torkildson pranced around the classroom, stuck out his tongue at the indulgent group of parents and then stood as still as Lot’s wife — struck with the utter beauty of laughter and the dim premonition that the cost of generating such merriment could be terribly high.
"I cannot remember a time in my life when I did not want to make people laugh," Torkildson said.
He put cellophane tape over the projector lens when the teacher showed movies. He learned to make an immense number of fart noises. He assiduously studied old Marx Brothers and Three Stooges movies on TV. He blew bubbles through his straw into his milk carton until it foamed over, and then slathered the foamy milk over his face so he could shave it off with a plastic butter knife.
The summer after high school graduation, Torkildson found an article about the Ringling Clown College within the pages of Life magazine. In a few months, he hitchhiked to Florida and enrolled in the program.
"I wanted to be (funny), but I wasn’t," Torkildson said. "I needed the training and the exposure that came with working with professional clowns."
Completing the Ringling Clown College program was no easy task for Torkildson. His family was embarrassed by his career choice, and he felt rejected by many of his fellow clowns. Despite this opposition, Torkildson became one of the top performers in his class, and graduated as one of only 12 students with an offer to perform with the Ringling Brothers Circus.
After a few years of working as a professional clown, Torkildson put his career on hold to participate in a Christian mission trip to Bangkok, Thailand. Here he developed a love for spicy foods and even performed some of his clown routines for locals.
"I spent two-thirds of my (time) performing as a clown," he said. " ... We would go visit hospitals, schools and jails."
Torkildson was lucky enough to get his job back with the Ringling Brothers Circus after he returned home, but being the class clown came at a price. Though he spent years in the circus making families clap and cheer with excitement, his wife and eight children were not so enthusiastic about his career.
"I sensed that my wife was falling away from me," he said. "This frightened me so … I gave up the circus (and) I worked ... as a tax collector. I went from making people laugh to making them cry … but I did it because I wanted to stay at home. It really didn’t help because by that time the marriage was dead. As soon as it was over, I quit that job and I went back to the circus. Obviously I was sad, I was heartbroken … I had lost my family."
Torkildson finished out his career working as a clown, eventually becoming the ringmaster and then running publicity for the circus. However, arthritis kicked in and traveling with the circus became too difficult to continue.
After moving on from the circus and working several different jobs, Torkildson found himself struggling to make ends meet.
"Once my active clowning career ended, I felt a real sense of deflation, and it took me years to redefine myself as someone who has worth outside of his ability to make people laugh," he said. "I wound up living in a homeless shelter. I ran out of options. That happened just a year ago."
A good friend of Torkildson's took notice to his situation and invited him to come stay with his family. Torkildson lives there today, works part-time and expects to be in his own apartment by the end of the summer.
Torkildson is also living closer to his children and grandchildren, and longs to spend time developing those relationships that may have suffered during his circus days.
"Anytime I can be with my children or grandchildren, that is extremely fulfilling for me," he said. "I haven’t experienced that with my children for many years, so it’s like a holiday."
Torkildson's clowning days may be over, but he'll never stop trying to make others smile.
"Writing is the thing I enjoy the most … I have a lot of fun memories of Thailand and the circus, and I write about those things," he said. "Physical comedy is impossible for me to do, so I’m grateful I have a new outlet to be able to write and through the Internet be able to share that with people."
Through his trials, Torkildson has never felt regret for his time in the circus, and has never given up hope for his future.
"I do not regret a single second of (being in the circus)," he said. " ... I can’t think of a finer thing to do for a profession than to make people laugh. I’m 60 years old, I was in a homeless shelter and I’m still getting back on my feet, but I do feel that my best creative work is still ahead of me. I’m walking into the future with open arms and an open mind to see what's there. And one way or another, it’s still going to be about laughter. I’m still going to be entertaining people. That’s my life."
Sara Phelps is a graduate of Brigham Young University with a degree in communications. EMAIL: email@example.com