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Former Pentagon staffer finds calling in bringing smiles to others

Jun. 16, 2013 - 09:49AM   |  
Children smile at Judy and Gary Kopff as they make their way to a fundraiser for a childhood cancer charity April 27 in Bethesda, Md. Judy Kopff, a former high-level Pentagon staffer, joins her husband in volunteering time at a number of Washington-area medical facilities, including Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
Children smile at Judy and Gary Kopff as they make their way to a fundraiser for a childhood cancer charity April 27 in Bethesda, Md. Judy Kopff, a former high-level Pentagon staffer, joins her husband in volunteering time at a number of Washington-area medical facilities, including Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. (Linda Davidson / The Washington Post via AP)
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Judy Kopff needs three hours to become a clown.

There is the Marine Corps-inspired uniform that she assembles — nothing like the serious pantsuits she wore during her years as a chief of staff in the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

She needs time to frame her eyes with the long, exaggerated false lashes, place the cartoonish red wig atop her head and meticulously draw the red-and-black lipstick heart on her face.

Topping the ensemble is a twisted three-foot-tall balloon hat that takes her 45 minutes to create.

Then she pulls together an outfit for her husband, Gary Kopff. He was once a financial investment expert, advising some of the world’s largest banks and corporations. Now he performs magic tricks while wearing a red-white-and-blue Dr. Seuss hat.

This has become Judy Kopff’s life since she left her job at the Pentagon in 1996.

In the beginning, becoming a clown who cheered others was a way for Kopff, 66, to move beyond her own pain. She and her husband had spent years trying and failing to become parents. There were five years of in vitro procedures, several operations, a surrogacy fraud and listening to adoption horror stories. Together, the couple saw their inability to be parents as an opportunity to help others.

Judy Kopff had always “liked the idea that people who make balloon animals make people smile.” In the mid-1970s, she signed up for a class to learn the craft.

She didn’t become hooked, however, until she bought a children’s how-to book on making balloon animals in the 1990s.

Then she had to find a way to put her newfound talent to work.

She asked relatives and friends for suggestions of places where she might clown around. She tried out her balloon skills at the National Center for Children and Families in 1994. Wearing a costume given to her by a friend whose husband was a Shriners International clown, she visited the annual Father’s Day picnic for foster children and their families.

She found the work so rewarding that she began volunteering at the Washington Home and at community service events run by synagogues.

“I’m not a particularly silly person, but I know how to have a good time,” she said. “I was serious when I had to be, but I enjoyed a good laugh.”

In 2003, Kopff returned to the Pentagon to work with private security contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan in the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

As a chief of staff, Kopff made no secret of her part-time work.

Her signature balloon hats appeared everywhere around the Pentagon, at office parties, on Take Your Child to Work Day, at Father’s Day barbecues and at the home of Peter Pace, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

“I made a three-foot-tall balloon hat … and I decided to visit my friend, who was a special assistant” to then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Kopff said of one office party. “Secretary Rumsfeld came out, and he saw me [wearing the hat] and kind of did a double take. .?.?. I said: ‘Very nice to meet you again. Would you like my hat?’ … He looked at me with this big smile and said, ‘I think I’ll pass.’”

Rumsfeld’s wife, Joyce, recommended that Kopff visit the Fisher House Foundation at Walter Reed Army Medical Center for Christmas that year.

Walter Reed was dear to the Rumsfelds, who visited the center weekly and knew the patients well, Kopff said.

In 2004, Gary Kopff wanted to see what his wife’s hobby was all about.

The former Fannie Mae executive had served as an expert witness and litigation support in lawsuits against corporations including Citigroup, Countrywide Home Loans, Fannie Mae, UBS and others involved in the investment banking meltdown.

“Watching a $2 trillion global crisis I think prepared me well for clowning,” he jokingly said.

Initially, Gary Kopff said, he approached his new career much like he had approached the old: focused on the end results.

His wife would make each child “three balloons and tell them stories and ask about their brothers and sisters at home and how many dogs they have,” he said. “I’d say, ‘Faster, faster, there are people in line.’”

But the more he volunteered, the more he realized that people were looking for “the endearing touch,” not the balloon.

“It’s about the experience one by one,” he said.

Judy Kopff retired from the Pentagon in 2008, and she and her husband devoted themselves to serving others, especially the wounded. She said she and her husband listen to troops at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center who want to tell their stories, talk to those who may not, and encourage patients and their families to clown around, too.

“Squirting a commanding officer when a senior officer comes around — there’s no Marine who doesn’t want the opportunity to blast someone senior,” Gary Kopff said.

The Kopffs could make as much as $400 an hour as professional clowns, Judy Kopff said, but they’re not in it for the money, red noses or paddle shoes.

They do it for the 85-year-old blind woman who smiled upon touching a balloon animal.

They do it for the veteran who broke into tears after hearing a balloon pop because his post-traumatic stress disorder triggered memories of exploding bombs. He asked for another balloon, determined to overcome his fear and give his child a life with balloons.

And they do it for the autistic boy who smiled all day, his father said, after Judy Kopff twisted a balloon for him at the Pentagon.

“While we’re physically tired, it’s always a privilege to be able to [help people], and we don’t have any sense of regret,” Gary Kopff said.

The only obstacle may be their age: volunteering for fewer hours, taking longer to prepare and suffering the occasional knee injury.

But Gary said clowning is a stable industry, and they plan to work for as long as they can walk.

“It’s not like there are young clowns clamoring for our job,” he said.

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