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April is National Volunteer Month, and one of Fayette County’s favorite volunteers, for both young and old, is Bill Beard, also known as “Windy Willy,” the lovable balloon animals clown.
What began as a desire to help others as he and his family had been helped became a ministry of sorts that has spanned 20 years, and Bill is enthusiastically entering into the 21st.
Bill has always been a law-abiding citizen; in fact, he has spent a lot of his adult life serving in law enforcement. But he has been a man of many faces and disguises, a talent that has served him well the past 21 years.
And now, because he has become fond of the beard he has grown, he has taken on yet another face – a friendly hobo clown.
Meet Bill Beard as he shares Windy Willie’s and his and Patty’s story:
Those who know Bill and Patty Beard will remember that years ago, their daughter, Tara, was born with microcephallus, which, in itself, means “small head.”
“It wasn’t diagnosed early enough to do anything about it,” Bill said. “Her head was smaller than normal, and didn’t allow room for her brain to grow.” Bill and Patty moved to the Vandalia area when Tara was 2 years old.
“Along with her other problems, she also developed scoliosis, which became almost life-threatening,” Bill said. “The only place I was able to find that I didn’t need too much help was the Shriner’s Hospital.”
Bill said he and Patty knew nothing about the Shriners until Tara needed back surgery. “A doctor at Carle Clinic had a friend who was a Shriner. He knew we couldn’t afford her back surgery and he said, “The Shriners will do it … and they did.”
The First Step
Seeing how the Shriners had helped his daughter, Bill decided he wanted to be a part of that.
“Because of the good works they do, I became a Mason in 1990,” Bill said.
That was the first step in a long life of giving moments of laughter and smiles to others, especially children, and moments of gratitude of their parents.
Along came Dave (Mayfield, that is)
Bill’s good friend, Dave Mayfield, helped him get into the Shriners and then, Bill claims, “Dave was a Shriner clown, and he got me started.
“He tricked me a long time ago,” Bill said.
Mayfield gave him a bag of balloons and told him to blow them up – by mouth. After a long time, Beard accomplished the feat, only to he handed another bag and told, “These are the ones we really use. Those are the ones we are not supposed to blow up by mouth, because they are too hard.”
Tricked or not, Beard was into the clown life for the long haul … and loves every minute of it. He loves bringing smiles to children’s faces.
There are moments of poignancy and sadness, as he relates to children with terminal illnesses. He admits to times, when having entertained these children, that he has to have a “quiet time” by himself. He has had three area children who especially touched his heart.
But even with those moments of sadness, he has enjoyed his life as a clown, and he admitted that it has also been a stress-reliever through his career in law enforcement. He retired from the Illinois Department of Corrections as a lieutenant, then served as a court security officer and private investigator.
He underwent five bypasses in 1999, recovered well, and then, as Windy Willie, continued on, with a minor change. Windy Willie now uses a pump to inflate the balloons for his animals to hand out to the children.
While he will still be known as “Windy Willie," his new look will be that of a loveable, comical hobo with a “Fred Bird” ball hat and duct tape holding his shoes together.
“I’ve grown fond of my beard,” he said, “And I can’t keep it with the old Windy Willie.”
And he most certainly will keep his big smile.
“The sad clown face just doesn’t work for me,” he said, “because even with the painted mouth turned down, it still quirks up at the edges.”
Although he has brought many smiles to the faces of children, and taken their minds off the discomforts, pain and unknown future in their young lives, he said it is the children who bless him.
“I feed off their smiles,” he said.