YAM Notes: July/August 2015

By Marty Snapp

Once upon a time, Gary Kopff was a financial expert at Fannie Mae, advising some of the world’s largest banks and corporations. Today, he performs magic tricks while wearing a fright wig, paddle shoes, and a red-white-and-blue Dr. Seuss hat.

Gary is a clown. And not just any old clown, either. Gary (aka “Clown Gary”) and his wife Judy (aka “Clown Judy”) spend their days at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, DC, bringing smiles to wounded warriors and their families.

They listen to soldiers who want to talk about their experiences and talk about other things with those who don’t. They’ll stick a foam clown nose on your nose, festoon your wheelchair with balloons, and make your own special balloon hat for you—whatever puts a smile on your face. And if you’re still feeling sad, they’ll hand you a squirt gun and tell you to fire away at the next senior officer who comes along. “There’s no Marine who doesn’t want the opportunity to blast someone senior,” Gary explains.

It all started when Judy, who was working as a chief of staff in the office of the Secretary of Defense, read a how-to children’s book about making balloon animals. She caught the bug and started looking for places where she could clown around. Soon her signature balloon hats were popping up everywhere in the Pentagon—at office parties, barbecues, Take Your Child To Work days, and at the home of former Joint Chiefs chairman Peter Pace.

One day, sporting a three-foot-tall balloon hat, she was visiting a friend who worked for Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and bumped into Rumsfeld himself, who took one look and did a double take. “Would you like my hat?” Judy asked him. Rummy broke into a grin and said, “I think I’ll pass.” But he turned her on to Walter Reed, and the rest is history.

By now Gary had gotten into the act, too, although he confided to the Washington Post that it took him a while to get clear on the concept. “I’d watch Judy make each child three balloons and tell them stories and ask about their brothers and sisters and how many dogs they have, and I’d say, ‘Faster, faster, there are people in line!” he said. “But the more I volunteered, the more I realized that it’s not about the balloon; it’s about the experience one-by-one.”

In the midst of so much suffering, Gary and Judy have found a place where, as Kurt Vonnegut put it in The Sirens of Titan, “I can do good without doing any harm.” Or, as Dick Pechter says, “Gary and Judy are truly doing God’s work.”

In other news, Rick Moody has retired as director of academic affairs with the AARP, although he’ll continue to edit the interesting and informative Human Values in Aging newsletter, which you can get for free if you e-mail Rick at hrmoody@yahoo.com and ask him to put you on the list.

“After graduation, I didn’t go for the big money,” he says. “Getting a PhD in medieval philosophy isn’t exactly the ticket to big bucks. Instead, I’ve spent much of my career in the field of aging, and now I’ve become what I teach.” Rick’s textbook on aging, which he credits with putting his son Roger through Yale (Class of ’10), is now in its eighth printing; and his book The Five Stages of the Soul has been translated into seven languages worldwide. “But as I tell people often, ‘My career is over’ and ‘I’ve retired,’ he says.”

Meanwhile, Dick Fates, Dick Munoz, Dave Stevens, Carter Willsey, and Ted Swenson gathered over Memorial Day at the Ausable Club in the Adirondacks to enjoy hiking, golf, “and, most of all, our friendship and our 70th birthdays,” says Ted, who joined the granddad ranks last December when son Ed and daughter-in-law Liz presented him and his wife Joany with twin grandchildren: a girl named Olivia and a boy named James. “Joany and I are delighted about these two little people and look forward to caring for them in all ways possible,” he says.

Finally, do you realize that it’s less than two years until our 50th reunion? The 45th seems like only yesterday. The reunion will kick off at noon on Thursday, June 1, 2017, with our ritual pilgrimage to Wooster Square for pizza at Pepe’s—sorry, Sally’s doesn’t open until 5 p.m.—and end on Sunday, June 4, with the traditional Sunday morning brunch at Commons.

And Tom Gottshall and his reunion committee will be filling the time in between with programs and events—including a possible tour and cocktail party at the two new colleges—that will make this reunion not only the biggest ever, but also the best.

Tom has asked me to tell you that unlike our previous reunions, our class dinner will be held on Friday, not Saturday—apparently, that’s traditional for 50th reunions—so please plan accordingly. And it will be held at Commons, not the courtyard of the college we’ll be staying in (probably Davenport). After the class dinner, the Whiffenpoofs will treat us with a special concert in Sprague Hall.

I sure hope you’ll join us. In one sense, this is a carpe diem reunion because at our age, you never know if this will be your last chance to see that cherished old friend again. (Several guys have told me that although they’re dealing with some serious health problems, they’re determined to be at the reunion. And I believe them.) But reunions are also a chance to meet some great people you never got a chance to meet at Yale, and they can be some of the best friends of all.

For instance, it was at the 25th reunion that I met Gary and Judy Kopff.