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‘I got caught up with the smiles’

Willmar woman has been clowning around the last 40 years

By Patricia Buschette

In the early 1980s, planners of the Spicer parade were looking for some clowns to spice things up. Darlene Bratberg and her family answered the call. While the rest of the family were not enthusiastic about the effort, the experience invoked an excitement in Darlene that remains with her today.

Darlene Bratberg, aka “Happy the Clown,”has many pleasant memories of the visits she has made, and her photo album displays many happy faces. Photo by Patricia Buschette

“I got caught up in the smiles,” she said. She took on the persona of “Happy the Clown.” The second year as a clown, Darlene traveled the parade route on a motorized bike. She would get off and ask parade goers to dance. She kept the name Happy the Clown and has appeared in nearly every Spicer parade since.

In many ways, Darlene and Happy the Clown are one. For the last 40 years, Darlene, who now lives in Willmar, has visited cancer centers, nursing homes, women’s groups, hospice – anywhere Happy receives an invitation. At times her appearances are spontaneous, making appearances at local Culvers and McDonalds, and other times at planned events.

“There is just joy and happiness,” she said. She especially enjoys visiting with residents at nursing homes.

Darlene grew up on a farm near Atwater. She graduated from high school in 1959 and began her nursing career with studies at Rice Hospital in Willmar, serving as a student with a stipend of $10 a month. She was offered a job in the New London Clinic as an LPN and served in that clinic for 46 years, always finding time to bring joy to the lives of others. Darlene is always ready to bring Happy the Clown to whoever might benefit.

“I never thought of my appearances as a ministry,” she thoughtfully said. But in many ways, it is.

“Whenever I volunteer,” she said, “I pray, Lord use me today. May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord.”

She is remembered by the families of those she came to visit, and they gratefully express their appreciation.

Her most memorable experience in clowning came with a hospice patient. The patient’s daughter explained, “Mom always really wanted to be a clown.” After making certain that the makeup would not be toxic, Darlene applied clown makeup, and her patient joyously became a fellow clown.

Happy will not appear as an evil or scary clown, but she was the guest of honor at a “Not afraid of retirement” party. Happy remained a friendly clown, but she took a picture with this scary clown mask. Contributed photo

Is her family proud of Darlene? “Yes, they are,” she said with certainty. However, she recalled traveling to one of her appearances in full clown regalia with her husband, who felt a bit uncomfortable. Her husband, a reserved Scandinavian, asked her to lay down as they drove through Atwater so she would not be seen. But he also knew how important it was to her to appear as Happy the Clown.

Happy the Clown has done a considerable amount of traveling over the years. She once traveled on a mission trip to a soup kitchen in Duluth, she once appeared at a 80th birthday celebration for a cousin in California, and she even walked the beach and greeted beachgoers while by the ocean.

“One should never miss an opportunity,” she emphasized. Darlene traveled to Guatemala on a mission trip, and while there, dressed as a clown to greet the children. They couldn’t understand each other’s spoken language, but made communication.

“I make contacts wherever I go,” she said. “Connections mean so much. There often is a ‘trail of connections.’”

Part of Darlene’s ministry reached a different (and bigger) audience. About six years ago, she reached out to Joe Soucheray of the radio show/podcast Garage Logic. She told Joe what she did and why she did it, and he invited her to appear on his show when he was broadcasting at the Minnesota State Fair. Darlene showed up at the Fair, not in Happy’s wardrobe, but with a bright red nose to identify herself, and visited with Joe. “He was so cordial and happy to see me,” she said with delight.

For 10 years she performed at the Kandiyohi County Fair, and even made a CD telling of her days at the fair. Her greatest thrill has been the children and the gleam in their eye when they see her, she said.

“I still get a thrill being with the children,” she said. “The children will call out, ‘Here comes a clown!’”

Happy’s costume has changed somewhat throughout the years. For a period of time, she merely put together stray bits of costuming, but Happy now has one distinctive suit of clothes and a red wig.

Darlene has at least 40 clowns of various sizes and shapes; many are gifts, some purchased at thrift shops. She has accumulated them over time. A nurse gifted a special one, and a porcelain clown came from a Shriner. She has started to cut back on her collection, giving some away. Contributed photo.

Happy and Darlene agree on one thing -- she will never appear as a scary clown. She finds that the evil clown, the antithesis of the playful funny clown, to be disturbing. A friend whose husband was commemorating his retirement asked her to appear as a scary clown, acknowledging the theme, “Don’t be afraid of retirement.” The cake appeared with a scary face and the retiree donned a scary mask, but Happy arrived prepared to entertain and inspire the guests as Happy. “It was so much fun,” she said with delight.

But her passion is working with children. She described the gleam in children’s eyes as they looked into her eyes and asked, “Are you a real clown?” Their responses to her are spontaneous and enthusiastic. “I like your shoes! I like your earrings! Where did you get those Minecraft glasses? May I have a picture of you? You look like you’re having fun?”

To those who are frightened and hide, she speaks gently, asking them why they are frightened. She always tells them of the good things about clowns. She explained that God has used her to be a clown.

Darlene said she will never forget one response from a young preteen boy who, without knowing the clown’s name, said “You are happy… That is joy inside and out.”

Darlene later learned from a family member that the boy was challenged. Darlene said she saw him as a boy with a huge heart.

Darlene praises God for the memories and pictures that remind her, and all of us, that we should see life through the eyes of a child.

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