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Union College prof uses his skills as circus clown to get subjects across

Union College prof uses his skills as circus clown to get subjects across

John Rieffel's brief career before college helps explain his outgoing personality.
Union College prof uses his skills as circus clown to get subjects across
Union assistant computer science professor John Rieffel and senior Caroline Brustowicz, of Newton, Massachusetts, work at a $300,000 hi-resolution 3D printer inside the Collaborative Design Studio at Union College's Wold Science Center on Wednesday, No...
Photographer: Patrick Dodson

John Rieffel should have bombed his college interview. He didn’t even bother to fill out an application. It fell behind his desk.

While others had polished presentations that 1994 day in Washington, D.C., Rieffel said he didn’t know what he was going to do until about 30 seconds beforehand. “I had nothing prepared,” he recalled.

The then-18-year-old high school senior told a panel he could tell a joke . . . but didn’t tell one.

He said he could juggle . . . but nothing took flight.

He said he could do a great handstand . . . and promptly flopped in the attempt. But Rieffel popped up and sold it as if he nailed a perfect 10.

“Olympic judges would probably have given it a zero,” he said. The punch line to the punch line: His best handstand wasn’t much better.

And that’s how John Rieffel got into the famed Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus Clown College, the Harvard of the field.

Rieffel is still in college today, an assistant professor of computer science at Union College, lecturing and researching weighty matters such as artificial intelligence and robotics while overseeing Union’s 3-D printer, a $300,000 National Science Foundation-funded marvel. His academic credentials — Swarthmore and Brandeis, with post-doctoral work at Cornell and Tufts — are impressive.

But in presenting his CV to Union prior to his arrival in 2009, Rieffel chose not to list his most unique degree: A Bachelor of Funny Arts.

“I was worried people wouldn’t take me seriously,” the 38-year-old Ballston Lake resident said. A former department head discovered his clown past doing Internet research and was amused. Clowns are amusing.

Most students didn’t know of Rieffel’s brief clown career until recently, but were not surprised given his outgoing personality. “I was like, ‘Oh, that makes sense,’ ” sophomore Frank Chiarulli of Chappaqua said.

And, in hindsight, Rieffel realized the arduous training he received to become a professional clown provided him skills he still uses today in the classroom.

“It comes in handy, because teaching is a performance,” he said. “You have to have the courage to stand in front of an audience. You need to keep their attention.”

And it works, senior Joshua Fields of Schenectady said.

“Other professors are straightforward: ‘Here is the material. Learn,’ ” he said. “He is more analogous. He tries to relate to your mindset.”

The clown tryout 20 years ago was a lark done on the urging of a friend. Rieffel was set to attend the prestigious Swarthmore College, with designs on a career in engineering. He did not expect a call afterward from Steve “T.J. Tatters” Smith, the renowned clown and director of Ringling’s Clown College, asking the teen to complete the application. Rieffel equates it to getting a call from Willy Wonka.

Not much later Rieffel got his acceptance letter. With his parents’ blessings and a year’s deferment from Swarthmore, he headed to Baraboo, Wisconsin, for eight intense weeks of Clown College. Thousands applied, but only 30 were accepted — making it one of the most selective schools in the country.

“The understanding was he would do it for a year. It was never instead of college,” said his mother, Alaire Rieffel, who still lives in the professor’s native Washington, D.C.

As a kid Rieffel like to walk on stilts and learned to juggle, and was outgoing and cheerful — “He was always somewhat of a clown,” his mom said — but when he got to Baraboo he knew the lark just got real.

“The hardest part was trying to be funny in a room full of funny people,” he said, “trying to make someone laugh who had seen it all.”

Rieffel graduated from Clown College, but was not one of the six selected to join Ringling Bros. He went home and did odd jobs, including work in a juggling store, until he got a call from Clyde Beatty Cole Bros. Circus, then the biggest three-ring tented circus in America. He signed on, and in early 1995 left for Florida to train.

That spring and summer he toured the East Coast, from Florida to Maine, performing two shows a day, three on weekends, sharing a 4-by-8-foot compartment in a tractor trailer with another clown.

He likes to say he “ran away from the circus,” but in truth, he said, he gave two weeks’ notice that August. He decided to stay with his original plan and attend college.

“They weren’t happy,” he said of circus officials, “but they didn’t feed me to the lions.”

So Rieffel went off to college, a year later than originally planned but back on the path he expected. He continued to perform, doing comedy improv through his school years, but was a serious student, on his way to becoming a serious academic.

Today he is married with two kids. He can no longer juggle knives or flaming torches, and his arena is a classroom, not a big top. And don’t ask him to be a clown at a birthday party. It’s not the same thing as he was trained to do, which was to perform in front of thousands.

But could he do that again, get back in front of the crowds, all these years later? Rieffel has no regrets about his career, and said the job of a circus clown is physically taxing. Go back to it? It’s not like riding a bike.

“It’s like riding a tiny little bike,” he said.

Reach Gazette reporter Mark McGuire at 395-3105, [email protected] or @MJMcGuire on Twitter.

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