The Day Weary Willie Smiled


Emmett 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 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 op erator 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, unpredict able 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.”

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23 Responses to “The Day Weary Willie Smiled”

  1. Cyn Says:

    How well I remember your Emmett Kelly doll from Christmas past. I never knew the character was called Weary Willie, though. Great story! You should ask Mom for the picture of you holding the doll, while I tried not to look too jealous while I was holding my own baby doll. You luck!

  2. Phil Bolsta Says:

    Wow, that’s a blast form the past! I don’t really remember that doll, although I’m sure I would if I saw a picture of it.

  3. Kim Battern Says:

    Hi Phil, I just read this story – it’s absolutely incredible. I am at work right now, googling your name, looking for info to use for your introduction on the 24th, and this story came up. You just know stories like this are not a coincidence. Have you read the Small Miracles books? There’s a new one out called Small Miracles of the Holocaust by Mandelbaum that has stories like this one. So inspirational!

    Will be in touch soon re your talk. Kim PS If you are in the Ridgedale Library sometime, check out the floor right before you go in… this morning we put down a big floor advertisement for your event. I hope we get a nice crowd.

  4. Phil Bolsta Says:

    Thanks for making my day, Kim!

    To everyone else: What Kim is referring to is my book reading at the Ridgedale Library in Minnetonka on Tuesday, March 24 at 7 PM.

  5. Jim Says:

    I have been looking for this book for awhile now!!! I can’t tell you what TV show I saw this on. I couldn’t even tell you the name of the book because I come into the story late. I can tell you I don’t normally believe in things like this. Somehow this story was believable, it touched me. I have told this story a few times to people I know. To see if anyone else had see it. Well today I had a few minutes to google it. Now that I have found it. hopefully I can find it at the book store.


  6. Phil Bolsta Says:

    Hi, Jim! This version of the story was published in Guideposts magazine. It’s also included in the new book, ‘When God Winks,” by Squire Rushnell.

    Thanks for stopping by!

  7. Steve Woodburn Says:

    Although I never had the pleasure of meeting him, Emmett Kelly, Sr. was my father-in-law. I met his daughter Stasia in 1982 (a little less than three years after he passed away) when we were both working in radio together in Atlanta. We were married in 1984 and have two teenagers now; Emmett’s grandsons who I know he would be proud of. Thank you for writing about Emmett and this story has touched thousands of people over the years. When I retell it I still get goosebumps at the syncronicity of it all.

  8. Phil Bolsta Says:

    How wonderful to hear from you, Steve! Yes, this story is the granddaddy of all goosebump generators!

    My sister and I loved Emmett Kelly when we were kids. He was an iconic figure who defined the sad but noble clown for generations of children. To this day, the thought of him makes me smile.

  9. David Beatty Says:

    Hi, Phil

    My dad, Frank Beatty, was the photographer who took the picture and then sat next to Stasia on that plane those many years later. Thanks for sharing the story. BTW, dad was also the official wedding photographer at Stasia and Steve’s wedding.

  10. Phil Bolsta Says:

    Wow! Thanks so much for stopping by and leaving a comment, David! That’s terrific that your dad photographed not only Emmett’s reaction to Stasia’s birth but Stasia’s wedding as well. I love it! This is a wonderful story that just keeps on getting better!

  11. Tsenre Seresac Says:

    Hi Phil! Great goosebumps-producing story! Emmett Kelly’s smile brought back memories of being told that I had a baby girl (my first born daughter was brought into this world via c-section…I wasn’t allowed into the operating room to witness this momentous event). My daughter is now 23 and lives in eastern USA. Thanks for bringing back that memory (big smile on my face as I’m writing).

  12. Phil Bolsta Says:

    My pleasure, Tsenre! Feel free to feel as many goosebumps as you’d like; this story is a bumper crop of goosebumps!

    I share your joy at being the dad of a daughter. Here’s the music video I put together to celebrate all things Daddy & Daughter:

  13. Regis Says:

    I have an Emmett Kelly doll that I have had since 1960. I am downsizing and looking to sell it. Wondering if anyone here might be interested. It is in wonderful condition.

  14. Phil Bolsta Says:

    I had what is probably the same doll at about the same time, Regis! I imagine your best bet is to list it on eBay.

  15. Steve Woodburn Says:

    Hey Phil,

    Wanted to let you know I’ve put up a Facebook page for Emmett and we’re slowly working to build a community so we can work on bringing his story back to life. I’ve written a one-man play and we’d love to see a book and movie to celebrate his life. Thanks again for your stories and I’ve put the link to this page on the facebook page today:


  16. Phil Bolsta Says:

    That’s awesome, Steve! Please keep me posted on your progress!

  17. Grace D Says:

    What a great story! I was given a Weary Willie doll for Christmas of 1959 and I still have it! He was my secret friend who I could tell all my stories to, both happy and sad. Oh, it’s old and worn now as all childrens’ best toys should be but I would never think of throwing it out. He’s always been considered one of the family. Over the decades, I’ve packed him up and taken him with me every place I’ve moved.

    For Stasia – To this day, your dad’s character of Weary Willie holds a very special place in my heart.

  18. Phil Bolsta Says:

    Love it, Grace! Thanks for sharing that!

  19. Morgan Says:

    Hi, I found a drawing pastels of Emmett Kelly senior with a tear, under a big top with smoke…trying to find info on the artist…it is from the forties and signed Horton….any info please? Thanks

  20. Phil Bolsta Says:

    WIsh I could help, Morgan, but I have no idea. Perhaps someone else might like a comment for you.

  21. Pamela Gregory Says:

    With all the junk of the world, this is the best story ever!!!!! Except for the fact that Rev. Billy Graham saw Jesus face to face yesterday!!!

  22. brandextenders Says:

    Hi all, I was married to Stasia Kelly for many years and have been working on a play about this iconic clown. I’ve told this story about the photo thousands of times and still get goosebumps. It was truly a Godwink for Stasia and will be incorporated into any play, book or movie we develop about Emmett and a bygone era of American when the circus was king.

  23. Phil Bolsta Says:

    A bygone era indeed! I’m sure you have many happy memories of those years, Steve.

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