Oldest living circus alum still has a few tricks up his sleeve
Robert Walsh ’37 may have lost a little off his fastball but his curve still has bite at 99 years old.
Walsh is the Gamma Phi Circus’ oldest living alum, and though his tumbling career ended long ago, he still lives on his own, still drives a Ford (day and night), and still cracks wise with the best of them.
Maureen Brunsdale, a circus historian and head of Milner Library Special Collections and Rare Books department, has gotten to know Walsh in recent years. She issued a friendly warning to this writer when he told her he planned to interview Walsh.
“You don’t know what you’re getting into,” she said. “He’s an incredibly energetic 99-year-old. He is a character—all caps.”
Walsh regained his independence last year after an injury temporarily put him in a nursing home. He is built like a cornstalk and retains a farmer’s handshake. Brunsdale said Walsh credits his years in the circus for his longevity. All he would say about it is, “I’m still here.”
Other examples of that character include how he told College of Applied Science and Technology Dean Jeffrey Wood he needed to lose his beard. Another time, in a story that changes slightly with the teller, he initially rebuffed an inquiring Chicago Tribune reporter for either refusing to drive to his Farmer City home for the requested interview or because the reporter wouldn’t make a donation to Walsh’s beloved circus program.
All Walsh would say about the matter is, “I don’t remember. I tell you, things happen that don’t really amount to much to you at the time. And there are some things I want to keep in mind and I want my mind to stay as good as it can—what little mind I have.”
Walsh was joking of course—about his mind—as one can tell after even a brief conversation with him. He is mentally nimble enough to recite, without prodding or stuttering, a slogan from his college days: “A good education consists in giving onto the body and onto the soul all of the beauty and all of the perfection of which they are capable.”
One thing he has kept in mind all these years is Gamma Phi Circus. Just as he will celebrate his 100th birthday this year, he will also pass the 80th anniversary of his introduction into what is now the country’s oldest collegiate circus program.
Walsh joined Gamma Phi in 1933 during his freshman year, about a year after the circus’ first annual show. The program had grown out of performances gymnastics instructor Clifford “Pop” Horton had started organizing in the mid-20s during basketball and football games. It was Walsh who pointed out to circus historians that Gamma Phi was started as a fraternity in 1929, about six years earlier than previously thought.
“Pop Horton was the instigator of everybody being able to do something,” Walsh said. “He was an excellent instructor.”
Walsh never thought he would go to college, nevertheless join the circus program.
“I didn’t think I could ever go to school past high school,” he said.
Walsh grew up in Farmer City, the son of a livestock trader. He graduated from a one-room schoolhouse at the age of 16 after being passed through two grades. He worked for a couple of years before he was admitted into what was then Illinois State Normal University.
The University had offered to cover his tuition if he agreed to teach for the same amount of years as he attended school. He also worked his way through college by running the projector at Capen Auditorium. He earned 2.5 cents an hour, he said.
“I just thought, one day if I can make it through here, I could be a teacher,” he said. “Don’t ask me to do any calculus problems,” he joked.
After college, he taught math and science for five years at Edinburg High School, which is just southeast of Springfield. While still a teacher, he gravitated into his father’s line of work after an acquaintance asked him whether he knew where he could find a good milk cow.
“So the principal called me in. And he said, ‘Say there are people who don’t care about this trading business you are at,’” Walsh recounted. “Well I said, ‘Let’s look at it this way, Harley. If you’d been walking to school this morning and had seen a $10 bill laying on the sidewalk, you wouldn’t have picked it up, would you?’ He said, ‘Well, certainly I would of.’ But he said, ‘There is no relationship.’ I said, ‘To you of course there isn’t. But to me it’s the same thing.’”
Walsh ignored the principal’s warning, expanding his trading territory and eventually becoming a grain elevator owner and operator.
“I think daddy was just a born trader,” his daughter, Linda Rogers, said.
Walsh and his high school sweetheart, Elizabeth (Reeser) ’37, got married in 1938. They had gone to Illinois State together. She became a commercial teacher and helped with the family business. They were married for 69 years, until her death in 2008. They had four children, who led to more grandchildren and great-grandchildren than he cared to count, and two great-great grandchildren.
“I’m very fortunate,” he said. “The old master’s been kind to me.”
He has re-engaged with the circus over the last 20 years, regularly attending performances and becoming a benefactor to the program. He also has appeared at pre-circus events, entertaining attendees with stories from his long life, Brunsdale said.
Walsh recalled that the circus’ resources were meager at the time he was a member. They had one set of parallel bars. And only one of the 40 or so members, Arley Gillett—who later became Gamma Phi’s director—knew how to walk on the bars with his hands.
Gamma Phi Director Marcus Alouan ’01, M.S. ’11, said in the early years the performers were all-around athletes who did acrobatic displays with a lot less equipment and facilities than today, even using grain sacks for padding.
“At the time the circus looked quite a bit different,” Alouan said.
Horton had his students watch the professional circus performers practice in the white barn off Emerson Street where many of them wintered in those years, according to Walsh. Crowds filled McCormick Gymnasium to watch Gamma Phi perform.
“We did tumbling and we built pyramids,” Walsh said. They also learned how to stand on their heads properly, he added.
Since then, the performances have grown more sophisticated, and the circus now performs in front of about 7,000 at Redbird Arena.
“Oh boy what a difference in the program,” Walsh said. “It’s amazing.”
Alouan said Walsh is a role model for current circus performers.
“Our goal is to help develop our students into the best lawyers, teachers, and accountants they can be. And use the circus skills to do that,” he said. “And Bob is the perfect example of that. He has gone off and done amazing things.”
To learn more about Gamma Phi Circus and this year’s performances, check out GammaPhiCircus.Illinoisstate.edu.