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Making a special contribution for children

(During the United Way campaign that runs through December 29, Tech Talk will periodically print updates on the fund-raising progress, as well as profiles of MIT community members who volunteer for agencies that receive funds from United Way of Massachusetts Bay.)

When William Wohlfarth does volunteer work for various children's groups, it's not work to him-he's just clowning around.

Mr. Wohlfarth, senior electrical engineer in Physical Plant, regularly puts on colorful clothes, makeup and a red rubber nose and entertains children as Rainbow the Clown at parades and other events. His audiences have included Scouts and Campfire Council groups as well as patients in the Shriners Hospital for Crippled Children. He is a member of one of the two Shriners "clown units" in Massachusetts, which train aspiring clowns in such tools of the trade as juggling, making balloon animals, walking on stilts, riding a unicycle and proper clown comportment, as well as selecting clothes and makeup.

Mr. Wohlfarth started his particular hobby about 14 years ago after he began going to clown meetings with some of his fellow Shriners. "It was just something I naturally gravitated towards," he said. "I didn't realize how big a part of my life it would become." Over the years, he has performed in Shriners rodeos and circuses (including one last summer-see photo from Tech Talk, August 16, 1995), as well as for other charitable organizations.

One of the things he most enjoys is making balloon animals for children. "It just looked like a neat thing to learn. It's so simple, but it's awesome to the kids," he said. This equation applies to the rest of clowning as well. "When you look at the expression on people's faces and realize that a small effort on your part brings such a big payback of happiness to other folks, that feeling of warmth is almost addictive."

There are about 5,000 Shriners clowns nationwide, Mr. Wohlfarth said. In fact, there is now a Northeast Shrine Clown Institute, where members from all over New England, eastern New York and Canada can take a prescribed clown course, complete with a textbook, a final exam before a panel of judges and optional college credit.

Clowning isn't the only volunteer activity in which Mr. Wohlfarth has participated; many United Way agencies have benefited from his efforts. At various times, he has stamped and addressed envelopes for the American Cancer Society, organized support activities for a Red Cross bloodmobile in his home town of North Reading, and collected redeemable cans and bottles for DARE Family Services. He has also answered phones at Channel 25 for a cerebral palsy telethon and done work for the March of Dimes and the American Diabetes Association. All told, he estimates that he spends 10 to 20 hours per month on volunteer work.

"I didn't even realize how many [activities] I was involved in," Mr. Wohlfarth said. "I just find it's a way of life."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on November 15, 1995.

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